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Timeout football: Roosevelt making progress under Jeff Karras

Roosevelt's Nico Nigel Coles talk before start practice Wednesday afternoRoosevelt High School. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Roosevelt's Nico and Nigel Coles talk before the start of practice Wednesday afternoon at Roosevelt High School. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:27AM



GARY — Nico Coles was looking in the mirror, checking himself out before the Gavit game when Jeff Karras scolded him about being focused and ready.

Four weeks and three wins later, Coles, a wide receiver for the Panthers, is still slightly annoyed by the memory.

“I wasn’t doing nothing,” he said. “It was like he was taking his anger out on me because I was just in his area.”

Coles does admit that he had his best game early in the season against the Gladiators, playing in the defensive backfield for the Panthers, causing a fumble while making his case for a spot as a wide receiver. That was before his three-touchdown game against Boone Grove last week.

Karras looks back fondly at the interaction. Coles actually got a little testy at the Karras challenge.

“We had a little back and forth,” Karras said. “He pretended he was me. I don’t care how they do it. I just want them to do it.”

If that sounds like vague, immeasurable motivational speak from a coach, so be it. Whatever it takes.

All Karras knows is that Coles has been real good since the Gavit game, catching five touchdown passes and his team has won three straight.

Coles, however, hasn’t really forgotten the dig.

“I let him talk, but if he continues to talk too much, I’ll say something back,” he said. “I do apologize, but he is wrong for yelling at us for no apparent reason.”

Coles concedes that he does like him because he hosted a pizza party for the team and he helped the players get new jerseys and they are winning after only getting one victory last season.

The ebb and flow of the season — with more ebb than flow early — reached a high point for the Panthers last week when they defeated Boone Grove 38-32 in double overtime.

It was Roosevelt’s third straight win this year — a feat it hadn’t pulled off since 2005. Perhaps more significantly is that the victory came against a good team — the Wolves are 6-2 this year and they have defeated Wheeler and Bowman, both teams with winning records in Class 2A.

Randall Felix, a fullback/linebacker for the Panthers, said getting the first victory was a big deal.

“It was hard,” he said. “It was like you had a 50-pound wet T-shirt on your back.”

It’s been easier since.

For Karras, the victories are coming, but later than he expected. The team has had to deal with a slew of disciplinary issues as they adjust to the new rules put in place by Edison Learning, the company that took over the school. His whole line was absent against Gavit after breaking team rules.

His roster of 28 has hardly been stable from week to week.

“I knew we could win,” he said. “We’ve got athletes. If we can block, we can beat teams.”

Last week, they did it with Nigel Coles, Nico’s brother, at quarterback. Nigel switched over from wide receiver to replace Deandre Lampley at quarterback. They were also able to come up with a new threat by putting running back Jerry Ruiz in at the wildcat position. Ruiz, one of the best backs in the city, threw for a touchdown and ran for another.

The season has been a rocky yet satisfying road for Karras and the kids. Everyone is vested in improving the program and everyone is invested in making the school better, but it hasn’t been easy getting there.

The kids complain about the long days and the bad lunches. They have to eat the school lunches (no food can be brought in) and they can’t leave their tables when they eat. They bring their garbage cans over to the tables when they have to throw out their trash. The policy was put in place to alleviate fighting, which was a regular occurrence last year.

“I don’t like it,” Nigel Coles said. “Sometimes, it feels like we’re incarcerated. I guess it’s a process.”

At the same time, Coles admits that the classroom environment has improved and that kids are learning more. He said he has also witnessed fewer fights this year.

On the field, the tension between Karras and the players has helped them perform better. Karras has simplified the system and focused on getting as many repetitions as possible for his team. Everyone plays multiple positions because they have no choice.

Ruiz said Karras has eliminated distractions by asking kids who aren’t going to practice or aren’t serious about the program to leave. He settled on Nigel Coles as his quarterback because he follows the simple rule of running the play without questioning it. It’s not as easy as just sending in plays sometimes and expecting the team to follow through.

“When he came here, it was more than just winning and losing,” Ruiz said. “He really wanted to create something better. He wanted a different mindset for the program.”

Ruiz called the win over Boone Grove “mind blowing” because of the way Roosevelt got the job done. They trailed early, came back in the second half to take a lead, lost it and then won, clinching the double overtime thriller with a Nigel Coles interception.

That was the kind of game they lost early in the season against East Chicago, a team they had down in the second half.

It’s also notable that EC trounced Boone Grove 42-20.

Next up for the Panthers is West Side, a team that beat Lew Wallace 74-22 last week. Karras was busy trying to find film early in the week — an issue that has been problematic for him because the guy that films Roosevelt sometimes has to pull double duty and do the clock and try to take film at the same time. Can’t trade film if you don’t have anything to offer.

Roosevelt caught a break with the sectional pairings. They get West Side back-to-back, meaning anything, even a victory in the state tournament, is possible for the first time in six years.



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