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Which Kalamazoo-area football player will have the biggest impact in 2021?

MLive - Jackson logo MLive - Jackson 1/4/2021 Patrick Nothaft, mlive.com
a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Lawton sophomore Jake Rueff rushes towards the sideline to gain yardage during the MHSAA Division 7 District Final game between Schoolcraft and Lawton at Schoolcraft High School in Schoolcraft, Michigan on Friday, November 8, 2019. © Emil Lippe | MLive.com/Emil Lippe | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS Lawton sophomore Jake Rueff rushes towards the sideline to gain yardage during the MHSAA Division 7 District Final game between Schoolcraft and Lawton at Schoolcraft High School in Schoolcraft, Michigan on Friday, November 8, 2019.

KALAMAZOO, MI - They say great football programs don’t rebuild, they reload.

a group of people playing baseball on a field: - Mattawan's Blaine Rogers carries the ball during football practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 at Mattawan High School © Patrick Nothaft | pnothaft@mlive.com/Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS - Mattawan's Blaine Rogers carries the ball during football practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 at Mattawan High School

While many Kalamazoo-area high school football teams are graduating an abundance of talented seniors, there are a number of underclassmen ready to carry the torch in 2021.

a boy swinging a baseball bat on a field playing frisbee: - Kalamazoo Central's Cincear Lewis goes through a drill during a Maroon Giants football practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 at Kalamazoo Central High School © Patrick Nothaft | pnothaft@mlive.com/Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS - Kalamazoo Central's Cincear Lewis goes through a drill during a Maroon Giants football practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 at Kalamazoo Central High School

With that in mind, we’re looking at the top returning prep football players heading into next season.

Four local teams — Constantine, Schoolcraft, Centreville and Martin — are still alive in the playoffs, but the rest have shifted their focus to 2021, and for many squads, the future is bright.

Follow along to see some of the Kalamazoo area’s top returners for the 2021 football season and vote for the one you think will have the biggest impact next year.

Readers have unlimited voting until 9 a.m. Friday Jan. 8, and a winner will be recognized shortly thereafter.

a group of people playing baseball on a field: - Kalamazoo United's Andrew Finley carries the ball during the first practice of the 2020 football season on Monday, Aug. 10 at Kalamazoo Christian High School in Kalamazoo, Mich © Patrick Nothaft | pnothaft@mlive.com/Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS - Kalamazoo United's Andrew Finley carries the ball during the first practice of the 2020 football season on Monday, Aug. 10 at Kalamazoo Christian High School in Kalamazoo, Mich

If your vote isn’t being instantly tabulated, please be patient. It can take the poll a few minutes to update itself when voting gets heavy, but your vote will be counted.

Ashton Atwater, Otsego

The junior running back ran for 639 yards and four touchdowns at 4.5 yards per carry, while adding 11 catches for 184 yards and two more scores during his second varsity season. Atwater also made 26 tackles and an interception on defense and averaged 29.1 yards per kickoff return in 2020.

a football player running on a baseball field: Schoolcraft sophomore Tagg Gott (2) dives passed a Lawton Blue Devil defender as he scores a first quarter touchdown at Schoolcraft High School in Schoolcraft, Michigan on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. © Joel Bissell/Joel Bissell | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS Schoolcraft sophomore Tagg Gott (2) dives passed a Lawton Blue Devil defender as he scores a first quarter touchdown at Schoolcraft High School in Schoolcraft, Michigan on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.

Joshua Boggan, Kalamazoo Central

The 6-foot-1, 240-pound athlete moved from linebacker to defensive end for his junior season and tallied 32 tackles, six stops for loss and three sacks in his second year as a starter.

Dylan Carper, White Pigeon

The 5-foot-8, 165-pound linebacker plays much bigger than his listed size, and, according to White Pigeon coach Shawn Strawser, he was pound-for-pound the hardest hitter on a Chiefs defense that allowed just 12 points per game. Carper finished his junior season with 43 tackles 94 for loss), three interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a pick-six.

a man playing a game of frisbee in a field: - Kalamazoo Central's Joshua Boggan goes through a drill during a Maroon Giants football practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 at Kalamazoo Central High School © Patrick Nothaft | pnothaft@mlive.com/Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS - Kalamazoo Central's Joshua Boggan goes through a drill during a Maroon Giants football practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 at Kalamazoo Central High School

With White Pigeon set to lose several of its top players to graduation, Carper’s play in 2021 will be even more vital to the team’s success.

Brayden Clark, Constantine

Clark went from freshman contributor to sophomore star in 2020, finishing the year with 132 carries for 1,309 yards and 13 touchdowns, while catching four passes for 172 yards and two scores. His blend of power and speed will be needed not only next season, but more importantly in Constantine’s regional final matchup with Michigan Center on Saturday.

a baseball player holding a bat on a field: - Lawton's Evan Stephayn gets into position along the line of scrimmage during football practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 at Lawton High School © Patrick Nothaft | pnothaft@mlive.com/Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS - Lawton's Evan Stephayn gets into position along the line of scrimmage during football practice on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 at Lawton High School

Cole Dean, Parchment

The dual-threat junior quarterback led Parchment to its best winning percentage since 2017 by completing 59 percent of his passes for 853 yards and nine touchdowns, while rushing for 475 yards and seven more scores for the 3-5 Panthers.

a person wearing a helmet: - Kalamazoo Central's Cincear Lewis looks to the sideline during a football game against Portage Northern on Friday, Oct. 23 at Kalamazoo Central High School © Patrick Nothaft | pnothaft@mlive.com/Patrick Nothaft | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS - Kalamazoo Central's Cincear Lewis looks to the sideline during a football game against Portage Northern on Friday, Oct. 23 at Kalamazoo Central High School

Tagg Gott, Schoolcraft

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound sophomore was a two-way star in his first season at Schoolcraft, running for 469 yards and five touchdowns on 59 carries, while adding 56 tackles (3 for loss) and an interception from his linebacker position. He’ll be one of Schoolcraft’s top returners in 2021, but in the meantime, he’ll try to help the senior-laden Eagles to a regional final win over Jackson Lumen Christi on Saturday.

Avery LaBrie, Galesburg-Augusta

The 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior missed two games due to quarantine, but when he was on the field, LaBrie was one of the most explosive players for a very young Galesburg-Augusta squad. He finished the year with 24 catches for 275 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 27 carries for 118 yards, all of which added up to Offensive Player of the Year honors from his team.

Caden Ferris, Delton Kellogg

The younger brother of current Central Michigan offensive guard Tyden Ferris and the son of former CMU star Rollie Ferris, Caden has the pedigree of a top-level lineman, and he delivered on that potential as a sophomore by tallying 27 pancake blocks without allowing a sack. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound blocker will play an even bigger role in Delton Kellogg’s ground game next season, as the Panthers look to replace four-year starter Cole Pape.

Drew Finley, Kalamazoo United

The 5-foot-9, 155-pound junior provided a nice complement to Kalamazoo United’s explosive passing game by carrying 86 times for 669 yards and six touchdowns for the 6-2 Titans. With standout offensive lineman Brandon DeVries also set to return, Finley shouldn’t have too much trouble finding running lanes in 2021.

J.R. Hildebrand, Martin

The leader of Martin’s defense, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Hildebrand played well beyond his years at middle linebacker by finishing his sophomore season with 50 tackles (6 for loss) and three forced fumbles for a Clippers defense that allowed 11 points per game.

Jacob Kavanaugh, Portage Northern

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound outside linebacker flourished in a much bigger role as a junior, collecting 49 tackles, 11 stops for loss and three sacks. Kavanaugh’s quickness and motor allowed him to consistently bring pressure off the edge and pursue ball carriers down the line of scrimmage, and he’ll be a cornerstone for the Huskies’ defense in 2021.

Cincear Lewis, Kalamazoo Central

At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Lewis has the combination of size and athleticism to strike fear in the eyes of receivers crossing the middle of the field. He finished his junior season with nearly 60 tackles (3 for loss) and four pass break-ups, which should only help him add to his current list of 12 Division-I scholarship offers.

Blaine Rogers, Mattawan

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound junior made 44 tackles (4 for loss) and a sack in his first year as a starting linebacker, while adding 158 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries in limited action at running back. The graduation of backfield mate Parker Neel, along with several of Mattawan’s skill guys, should mean more opportunities for Rogers in 2021.

Noe Rojas, Climax-Scotts

The junior led a deep Climax-Scotts backfield with 415 yards and five touchdowns on 83 carries, and the graduation of fellow running backs Ernesto Escobedo and Damonte Jenkins should mean more touches for Rojas in 2021.

Jake Rueff, Lawton

A two-year contributor at running back, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Rueff saw his production take off as a junior, when he tallied 963 yards and 15 touchdowns on 93 carries, while adding 17 catches for 214 yards. He also added 19 tackle and a forced fumble from his cornerback spot, and he’ll play a much bigger role in the secondary next year following the graduation of star defensive backs Connor DeVries and Jonathan Holloway.

Evan Stephayn, Lawton

The sturdy 6-foot-3, 250-pound junior collected 35 tackles, 10 sacks and two forced fumbles from his defensive tackle position, while paving the way for Lawton’s ground game to rush for 2,104 yards in 2020. He’ll be one of the area’s top returning linemen in 2021.

Tyler Stolsky, Portage Central

Stolsky enjoyed an incredible junior season, in which he made 79 solo tackles, 55 assisted stops, 17 tackles for loss, six sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries for a Portage Central defense that allowed 16.3 points per game. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound linebacker holds scholarship offers from Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, among others, and he’ll surely be one of the state’s best in 2021.

Dennis Strey, Paw Paw

The 6-foot-7, 305-pound right tackle was a road grader that paved the way for Paw Paw to rush for more than 1,000 yards in six regular season games. The Red Wolves lose star running back Kolby Hindenach to graduation, and whoever asserts himself as the team’s top ball carrier in 2021 will benefit greatly from Strey’s skills.

Trent Till, South Haven

Called the “spark of the team” by South Haven head coach Mark Eddy, Till helped the 5-3 Rams post their first winning season since 2008 by rushing for 477 yards and seven touchdowns at 6.6 yards per carry, and the junior finished with 718 all-purpose yards.

XaVior Tyus, Portage Northern

The 5-foot-7, 170-pound sophomore earned the starting middle linebacker spot in 2020, but suffered an injury in Week 4 and missed most of Northern’s final five games. He still finished with 27 tackles and 3.5 stops for loss, and Tyus will be one of the top playmakers on both sides of the ball for the Huskies in 2021.

Jose Valverde, Paw Paw

Rarely do kickers receive a lot of acclaim at the high school level, but the 5-foot-9, 205-pound athlete has an extraordinary left leg that makes him a weapon from anywhere inside the 35-yard line. During his junior season in 2020, Valverde made all 34 of his extra points and 6 of 9 field goals, including makes from 39, 44, 49 and a school-record 51 yards.

Cross Watson, Portage Central

Watson wasn’t the most well-known of Portage Central’s lineman coming into his junior season, but the 6-foot-5, 250-pound left tackle developed into one of the SMAC’s best blockers by using his power and explosion at the snap to carry defensive lineman downfield. He’ll be one of the top linemen to watch in West Michigan during his senior season in 2021.

Will Zuiderveen, Kalamazoo United

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound signal caller adapted well to the run-pass option system installed by first-year coach Troy Ayotte, finishing his junior season with 1,269 yards and 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, while completing 54 percent of his passes and adding five rushing touchdowns.

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