CARY – The stories Cary-Grove’s football coaches started hearing last year were true.
The ones about an incoming freshman from the Junior Trojans’ program who could be special.
C-G coach Brad Seaburg sized him up when they handed out equipment and liked what he saw.
“You kind of do the eyeball,” Seaburg said. “There are certain things you can just kind of get a feel for.”
When practices began, freshman Tyler Pennington jumped out even more. Play after play, Seaburg watched the 5-foot-10, 175-pound defensive end come from the back side and run down the ballcarrier.
Pennington started the season at defensive end. Then, he played some strong safety and running back. After three games, Seaburg had seen enough to make a bold move – he moved Pennington to fullback, the ultra-important position in the Trojans’ triple-option offense.
Pennington played like a varsity veteran, taking the pounding and cranking out 100-yard games like they were nothing. In seven games, he has 902 yards rushing for the No. 9-seeded Trojans (7-3), who host No. 1 Boylan (10-0) in an IHSA Class 6A second-round playoff game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Al Bohrer Field.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job,” Pennington said. “There’s always room for improvement and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m smart, I like to play physical and like to play hard every down.”
Seaburg agrees and says Pennington has given C-G great consistency at fullback.
“He’s extremely intelligent and pays close attention to details,” Seaburg said. “Those things make him very coachable. We call them one-timers. You tell him one time and he gets it.
"In addition to those things, he’s very tough You have to endure pain you get at fullback. He’s a freshman, he’s getting pounded and he’s getting 100 yards. You almost take it for granted.”
C-G started 0-2 with losses to Class 7A powerhouses Wheaton North and Lake Zurich, whose defenses were big reasons the Trojans struggled to generate offense. C-G defeated Huntley, 16-13, in Week 3 and Pennington became starting fullback the next week.
“The first two games, give credit to the defenses,” offensive tackle Trevor Ruhland said. “J.D. [Byrne] did a good job, but when T.P. came in, he got us that extra 3 or 4 yards when there isn’t anything there that’s crucial to the option. He’s a great guy to have in the huddle, he’s always positive. He’s going to be a really good player. He’s a good player now.”
Pennington topped 100 yards for five consecutive games until Hampshire held him to 90 yards in Week 9.
“During the summer, we realized he had potential,” linebacker Matt Hughes said. “He fought hard and he’s a bigger kid [for a freshman]. He saw the speed of varsity and he’s done well with it. He’s had some great leaders on the other side of the ball with the offense.”
Seaburg could remember only one fumble, in the Trojans’ 6-0 victory at Prairie Ridge.
“He came over to the sideline and said, ‘A guy pulled it out, it’s my fault,’ ” Seaburg said. “Early on, we knew he was a player, but we didn’t know if he’d be ready at fullback Week 1 for us. He was competing with some other guys who had a little bit more experience than him.”
Ruhland could not resist getting in a little shot at the rookie, but not without a compliment too.
“He’s a little undersized and he hasn’t really developed his muscles yet,” Ruhland said, within earshot of Pennington. “But nobody works harder than him.”