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Football: Erie sophomore takes over for mentor

Jordan Chandler is well-equipped.

Starting his first playoff game, the Erie High School sophomore is gifted both physically and mentally: He's got fleet feet, a strong arm, toughness and vision. Erie-Prophetstown coach Chuck Milem calls Chandler "poised beyond his years."

Perhaps most importantly, the guy Chandler will fill in for has given the understudy two crucial tools. The more tangible of the two is almost two full seasons of pointers and tips.

Whether it's making reads, getting his shoulders around on a throw or minding his footwork, Chandler has minded every word Howard has uttered.

The less tangible tool? Proverbial fire.

"The next game I'm going to play is for him. I'm going to play my heart out for Ethan," Chandler said before practice Thursday, leading up to an anticipated slugfest with Stillman Valley on Saturday.

He didn't mince words when describing how it felt to watch his mentor go down with a knee injury during the Panthers' 50-28 victory over River Valley in the first round Friday night.

"It was a little bit of a heartbreak, and I didn't hear how bad the diagnosis was until after," Chandler said. "I'm heartbroken for the kid. He's like a brother for me. Nobody deserves to be hurt, but it's awful to see him in pain.

"I was a little shook up."

Still, Chandler's 25-yard run early in the fourth broke open a game very much in the balance at 30-28.

Milem has utmost confidence in Chandler's ability to run the option and wing the ball when he has to. But he'll miss Howard's ability to run like a bull in a china shop.

"He's just incredible, and if Nick [Williams] didn't get the ball, it was like trying to tackle another fullback when Ethan kept it," Milem said. "He's such a powerful runner, and he was just an overall distributor."

Williams is head-and-shoulders atop the area leaderboard with 1,959 rushing yards on 238 carries. His 24 touchdowns are tied with Newman senior Jake Snow. Impressively, Howard checks in ninth in the Sauk Valley with 866 yards on 109 carries.

On just 65 carries, Chandler has racked up 650 yards, a cool 10-yards-per-carry clip.

Whereas last year, he relieved Howard in Week 2 and played every snap of a 14-7 nail-biting win over Riverdale, Chandler took all of one snap under center this season before Howard got hurt Friday.

Whereas he says he was "a nervous wreck in a mind game" last year, he's got myriad reasons to feel comfortable when the Panthers vie for their second win as a co-op Saturday.

"I know I've got one of the best offensive lines in the state to protect me and block for the running game," Chandler said. "I'm not feeling feeling as nervous as I did last year. I can't put into words how awesome it's been to have [Howard] to help me out and get to this point."

There's also strength in numbers. Chandler is one of six sophomores – including his left tackle, Pedro Herrera – starting for the Panthers. On the defensive side, tackle Jack Heflin and end Noah Eads have enjoyed breakout season on the line.

Phillip Coers played his way into a starting job at linebacker leading up to Week 4, joining Dylan Binion, who's been in the corps since the playoffs a year ago.

Milem admits he's seen the underclassmen coming for some time, and he makes it a point to remind them that the co-op's last playoff appearance before last season was in 2002, when his brother, Chase, and the Panthers lost to…Stillman Valley.

"I tell our players how awesome it is to practice under the lights," Milem said.

He says his players look at him quizzically.

"It gets dark at 5 o'clock. It's a blessing to be playing this time of the year," Milem said. "These sophomores, they come in, and they won as junior-high kids. They just think that's the way we've done it."

Chandler knows the right to keep doing it rides on the battle in the trenches.

"Whoever wins that battle will win the game, not me," he said. "[Stillman Valley] gets off the ball low and fast. Our line has to get off the ball just as fast, if not faster."

And if they do, and the Panthers prevail, what does a sophomore quarterback do for his linemen? Steak dinner? Maybe Subway, at the least?

"What wouldn't I do?" Chandler asked. "I bow down to those guys, and without them, we're not the same offensive team."

Second-round football playoffs

Stillman Valley (8-2) at Erie-Prophetstown (8-2)

When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Wayne Hein Field, 435 Sixth Ave., Erie

Radio: 94.3 FM

Twitter: Ty Reynolds (@STyReynolds)

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