HARVEY | They are only juniors. Yet even now, Thornton Township quarterback JoWahn Brown and receiver Jauan Wesley exhibit a borderline telepathic ability to connect on a football field.
Take Friday night’s game at T.F. South. It’s the first round of the Class 7A playoffs. The Rebels know all about Brown and Wesley and all the other receivers Brown has to pick from.
Does that matter? No. Brown still hits Wesley with an eight-yard touchdown pass — Brown’s 27th scoring throw and Wesley’s 12th scoring catch of the season — as important a score as Brown’s 4-yard plunge that was the difference in Thornton’s 23-21 victory over the Rebels.
It’s one of two catches for Wesley in the game, the other a 21-yard completion. The dynamic duo has collaborated for 41 of Brown’s 145 completions this season, with Wesley accounting for 700 of Brown’s 1,918 passing yards.
They are easily one of the better passing combinations in Wildcats history, a gilt-edged group of pairings that includes Antwaan Randle El and Tai Streets, Dontrell Jackson and Tierra Pought, and, coach Bill Mosel reminds, Floyd Coleman and tight end Barry Starks, the star combination that led the Wildcats to a Class 6A runner-up trophy in 1989 and the 6A championship in 1990.
Brown and Wesley are still new at this. Brown has been able to fling it almost since he was in diapers, but two years ago, when Wesley was a freshman, Wesley and the football hardly got along.
“At first, I wasn’t that good at receiver,” Wesley said. “I had to work on it over the summer and sophomore year.”
Wesley worked and worked, taking advantage of a seven-on-seven camp to catch hundreds of balls thrown his way by Brown, a grade school football rival.
“Then we developed a connection,” Wesley said. “At seven-on-seven we connected really good.”
Brown saw it earlier.
“We had a good connection from freshman year,” Brown said.
Mosel, who coached the three aforementioned stellar pairings and is in his 27th year as head coach, sides with Brown’s interpretation.
“I think you could see it coming out of their freshman year,” Mosel said. “They were real comfortable with each other. Then we brought them up, and because they were younger guys, they got closer than they were already. They had a pretty good friendship coming into their sophomore year.
“We tried to ease JoWhan into quarterback last year, early, not give him a whole lot of reps, not put a whole lot of pressure on him. As the season wore on, we eased him into being the starter.”
The Wildcats, as is usually the case, made the playoffs. However, they dropped a first round Class 7A encounter to Oswego. It was the second first-round loss in as many years.
That hex was lifted Friday night. The Wildcats host Downers Grove North this week — Thornton’s first playoff home game since 2008, and its first night playoff home game in memory — the dividend for knocking off the Rebels.
Brown’s 27 touchdown passes have gone to six receivers, a luxury few quarterbacks not named Manning or Brady have.
“These guys are great,” Brown said of Jason Towns, D’Andre Fuller, D’Anthony Cross, Marsean Vercher and Wesley, his usual targets. “We practice a lot of routes. A lot of times, it’s a short route and they turn it into a big gain. They can make short routes go for 80-90 yards, easily. I just have to get the ball into their hands, short or deep. A lot of screen passes have gone for touchdowns. I’m grateful for the receivers I have.”
But Brown, grateful to play behind a solid offensive line, albeit one unheralded, knows Wesley is the first man to look to most of the time.
So does Mosel.
“Juwan Wesley is as talented a wide receiver as I’ve seen come through here in a long time now,” Mosel said. “He could be special, he really could. He’s got great speed. He’s got great hands. He runs good routes. He’s being coached by Tai Streets and Dontrelle Jackson. He’s actually a pretty good sponge. He absorbs everything that they give him. He’s getting to be a good student of the game, too.”
The season might have been in the balance after a 34-20 Week 2 loss to Naperville North, but the Wildcats rebounded with six consecutive wins, including a gritty 15-7 victory against Lincoln-Way West, when the offense did just enough and the defense did the rest. Even Mosel, a man who tosses out superlatives like boulders, was impressed.
“I thought defensively, to give up only one touchdown against a quality opponent, that’s as good as we’ve played all year,” Mosel said. “That’s a good offensive power football team.”
Thornton last advanced to the quarterfinals in 1996, losing to the then one-and-only Lincoln-Way. That’s ancient history, but the concept of a deep drive into the playoffs is ever new.
“It would mean everything,” Brown said. “I really want it for the seniors, because they’ve worked hard since their freshman year, but I want it for us, too.”