High school football 2023 preview: Get to know Champaign Central

Aug. 24—Love of the game

Aidan Walker started playing football in sixth grade. Fellow Central offensive lineman Dawson Caldwell, who was more focused on baseball, came to football as a freshman. Junior quarterback/safety George Rouse got his start the earliest in fifth grade, and football quickly became his favorite sport. Rouse showed a knack for the game in Central's youth football camps growing up. "Not to brag a little bit, but I won four straight championships," Rouse said with a laugh of his camp exploits. "That's my claim to fame. It's cool to think about the people that were coaching you at those camps thinking they were so cool and you wanted to be them. Now, you are, so it's really cool to be who you looked up to."

Season outlook

Central fans won't have to go far to see the Maroons play this fall. The schedule puts Central on the road just twice in nine weeks, with a Week 6 game at Peoria Notre Dame and a Week 9 game at Peoria Richwoods. Five home games and road games at Centennial and Urbana means the Maroons barely have to leave C-U. Not that life in the Big 12 will be easy. "It's always going to be tough, which we appreciate," Central coach Tim Turner said. "If we are able to make it through and we are able to compete in the playoffs, we know we've been battle-tested. I love the state of the union in the Big 12 because you know who you are pretty early. Good or bad, it allows you to grow from it."

Playoffs ... or bust

Central closed out 2022 with a win — taking down Richwoods in Week 9 at Tommy Stewart Field — but it was an otherwise rough season for the Maroons with a 3-6 finish. "Last season definitely left a bad taste in our mouth," Rouse said. "I don't think I played as well as I wanted to. I feel like with the experience that I got last year, the game will be able to slow down a little bit and just focus on my job." Last year's struggles made it four straight seasons without a playoff appearance for the Maroons. They last made it in 2018 in Turner's debut season as coach. It is playoffs or bust for Central in 2023. "We always have expectations of being competitive," Turner said. "Over the last couple years, that maybe hasn't been quite the case. Our goal is to compete with every team we're going to play and be able to make sure, win or lose, everybody that leaves our stadium or leaves every stadium we play, they make sure they know they've been in a ballgame."

Odds and ends

Caldwell and Walker started on both sides of the Central offensive line at left guard and right tackle, respectively, as sophomores. It was a learning experience, and not always a fun one during a 3-6 season. "Last year, we had a lot of sophomores," Caldwell said. "A lot of us are going to be way more experienced, and we had a whole offseason to get better and stronger. Now, we can bring up the new sophomores behind us and really rally the team together." Turner expects to have about 60 sophomores through seniors and around 20 freshmen this fall. The offensive line is representative of the team as a whole. "I think we're pretty confident," Walker said. "A lot of young people, mostly juniors with maybe one to two seniors. Last year, Dawson and I started. We've helped the other guys who are just now becoming starters to get the feel of it so they don't get surprised when the games start."