Jasper Strong, who now prefers his given name to his college nickname "J.J.," is head coach at Dolton Thornridge. He matriculated to Illinois from Chicago Mt. Carmel and was a highly successful receiver. He played pro ball with the Houston Oilers in 1995 and the Miami Dolphins in 1997.
Once he realized coaching was in his blood, he returned to his roots to work under fabled high school coach Frank Lenti at Mt. Carmel.
"I started my coaching career with Coach Frank at Mt. Carmel in 2002. Things just kind of worked out over time. It speaks for itself, the things he's accomplished. I was just trying to do things the right way."
Getting a head coaching job at Thornridge was a coup for a young coach, and he is taking advantage of it despite a disappointing 2009 season.
"Last year we went 4-5. We should have done better, but all coaches feel that way. We had a lot of juniors last year, so we're looking forward to some good things this year."
Strong is building a foundation around a number of talented players. Chief among them is upcoming senior running back Mika'il McCall.
"We do have a number of players that can play at the next level. At this point, he would be our #1 college prospect.
"He's a great young man, very respectful as a person. As a player he works hard and has the natural ability to go a long way. There's no question he's a Division I running back. One of the major schools in one of the major conferences. He can do it all. He's strong, he's fast, he can catch.
"He's a combination (of slasher and shifty). He can cut very well when he needs to and sees things. But he can be physical also."
Strong is helping the 5'-11", 190 pounder with his recruitment.
"We went to the U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio, Texas, where he could get his name out there and show his ability. From there, we've visited schools on their junior days so he could see their facilities and see if that's a place he would want to be.
"I've been talking with coaches, and they have expressed strong interest in him. He received his first offer from Michigan State. It's only a matter of time when the other schools will follow suit."
What are some of the schools in regular contact with McCall?
"Schools that have shown a strong interest include Illinois, Northern Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Akron and Central Michigan. Michigan has invited him to a couple games."
Illinois is holding off making decisions on running backs until they know what they have on campus. Written offers should be going out shortly after spring practices end. McCall is definitely under consideration.
"Illinois has a lot of strong interest. I'm surprised they haven't offered yet, but I'm sure that won't take much longer to happen. They have a new running back coach, and he has to become familiar with the players he has on hand. He (McCall) is being patient. He's very mature and humble, so he's doing okay."
While only northern schools have heard about him to this point, he may prefer another area of the country if given a choice.
"He likes the Big 10 of course. But he told me he'd kind of like to go down South where it's warm. I can understand that."
Strong thinks highly of McCall's potential, but he feels some other players on his team deserve a shot at major college football also.
"We have a receiver Jacolby Owens who's 6'-4", 190. We have defensive back James Wilson, 5'-10", 185. And Demetri Johnson (6'-1", 195) plays defensive back and receiver. Demetri has received strong interest from Northwestern. He has a 3.5 GPA and has the ability to play in the Big 10.
"These schools know about Mika'il, and then when I show them highlights, they get a look at the other guys. Pretty much the schools that have interest in Mika'il have an interest in those guys as well. Maybe not as strong, but they do have interest."
Strong feels a pipeline of talent is being established at Thornridge. Several upcoming juniors have college potential as well.
"Among the juniors, I have Jalann Pulley, Terrell Deloach, Stephen Davis, and Ricardo Pierre-Lewis. Ricardo is our starting center. He started all 9 varsity games as a sophomore. Stephen is a nose tackle, Jalaan Pulley is a safety, and Terrell Deloach is a receiver and defensive back."