The 2016 high-school football season is upon us, which gives us a chance to see the stars of tomorrow. Several former players in the Lake Country/Now coverage zone have already moved upward. Recognize any of these names? Here are the players from the coverage footprint competing in NCAA Division 1 college and the pros.
In the Pros
JJ Watt, Pewaukee (Houston Texans)
Watt joined NFL great Lawrence Taylor as the only player named league Defensive Player of the Year three times after yet another spectacular 2015, but back injuries all but erased his 2016. That means all eyes will be on Watt, as the Texans could feature the league's best defense if he's healthy.
Joe Thomas, Brookfield Central (Cleveland Browns)
By now, the story has been written – Joe Thomas is a superstar offensive tackle (albeit one who still doesn’t get the notoriety he perhaps deserves) and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. The real question is: will he go down in history as the greatest player in NFL history to never see the playoffs? He’s in that conversation now, but the Browns can’t be bad forever, right?
Brad Nortman, Brookfield Central (Jacksonville Jaguars)
Nortman got to enjoy the thrill of an NFC Championship and an appearance in the Super Bowl after the 2015 season as punter for the Carolina Panthers. The next offseason, he signed a four-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he finished in the top 10 in punting average.
Rick Wagner, West Allis Hale (Detroit Lions)
After a successful four-year run with the Baltimore Ravens, Wagner made history in the offseason when he signed the richest deal in NFL history for a right tackle (more than $2 million better than the previous best), a signature worth five years and $47.5 million. It's part of the Lions' massive offensive line upgrades that also included former Packers guard T.J. Lang, so Green Bay fans will surely get a look at Wagner this year.
Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin Lutheran (Cleveland Browns)
The Waukesha native was also making records for a team that sought to revamp its offensive line, with Cleveland also bringing in J.C. Tretter from the Packers. After a five-year run with the Bengals, Zeitler signed for five years, $60 million, making him the highest-paid guard in league history. The state of Wisconsin is known for producing offensive linemen, and Wagner and Zeitler have certainly been Exhibit A and B.
Joe Schobert, Waukesha West (Cleveland Browns)
Schobert capped a great career at Wisconsin by earning Linebacker of the Year honors in the Big Ten, and Browns made Schobert the first pick of the third day of the NFL Draft in the fourth round in 2016 (pick 99). Schobert started four games for the Browns in his rookie year under first-year coach Hue Jackson, but the move to a 4-3 defense could pay even greater dividends for the multi-sport standout from West.
Derek Watt, Pewaukee (Los Angeles Chargers)
In his rookie year with the Chargers, Watt saw the field in every game, doing the bulk of his work on special teams but seeing at least one offensive snap in all 16 contests. The fullback moved with his teammates to Los Angeles in the offseason.
Nick Bellore, Whitefish Bay (Detroit Lions)
After five strong seasons as a special teams player with the Jets and 49ers, Bellore had a breakout season in San Francisco last year when he saw the field as a linebacker and started 10 games. He posted a career-high 83 tackles with a sack and interception, and then signed a one-year deal with Detroit in the offseason. It's close to where the undrafted Bellore played college football (Central Michigan).
Shelby Harris, Homestead (Denver Broncos)
Harris, who has seen action in eight games during his NFL career with Oakland, was signed to a Futures Contract in Denver.
Joel Stave, Whitnall (Kansas City Chiefs)
Stave served as a backup on the Minnesota Vikings last year and now has a spot with the Chiefs.
TJ Watt, Pewaukee (Pittsburgh Steelers)
The 30th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft heads to a place where linebackers have been known to thrive, and he becomes the third Watt brother to don an NFL uniform. He'll be expected to make an immediate impact.
Mark Spelman, Marquette (Tennessee Titans)
The Waukesha native started 12 games in 2016 on the offensive line for Illinois State and was named third-team All American by the Associated Press. He was also given the FCS Rimington Award for top center in FCS. He went undrafted in 2016, and this will be his first crack at an NFL job.
Chikwe Obasih, sr., Brookfield Central (Wisconsin)
Honorable-mention All Conference choice in the Big Ten the past two years, with 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season as the Badgers won their division of the Big Ten.
Alec James, sr., Brookfield East (Wisconsin)
Earned honorable-mention All Conference last year from the coaches after playing 13 games with nine starts. Made 23 tackles and forced a fumble for divisional champion Badgers. That included three tackles in the win over LSU at Lambeau Field. It stands to be a huge year for James, formerly the All-Suburban Player of the Year.
Beau Benzschawel, jr., Grafton (Wisconsin)
The junior was named second-team All Conference by the coaches and third team by the media as a guard on the offensive line. After injury limited his season in 2015, he played all 14 games last year at right guard and helped Wisconsin rush for 203.1 yards per game.
Jacob Maxwell, jr., Greendale (Wisconsin)
After getting pressed into starting duty as a freshman, Maxwell made seven more starts as a sophomore at right tackle before suffering a season-ending injury. If he's healthy, will be key part of an offensive line that could be exceptional in 2017, even without first-round draft choice Ryan Ramczyk.
Brett Connors, jr., New Berlin West (Wisconsin)
He earned his second letter with four starts and 14 overall games, usually playing at center on the offensive line that returns several key parts in 2017.
Zack Baun, soph., Brown Deer (Wisconsin)
He earned his first letter last year and registered 15 total tackles, and his profile only figures to grow at outside linebacker
Ben Bredeson, soph., Arrowhead (Michigan)
The offensive lineman earned Freshman All-American from the Football Writers Association of America and was honorable-mention All Conference in the Big Ten. He made eight starts at left guard and started in the Orange Bowl. One of the state's greatest offensive linemen only figures to see his profile grow.
Nate Tanguay, sr., Mukwonago (North Dakota State)
Was named second-team All Conference at defensive tackle last year even though his season was cut short by an ACL injury in Week 9. After rehabbing, a healthy Tanguay could be an All-American candidate as the Bison look to bounce back from a year in which they didn't win the national championship for the first time since 2010.
Sean McGuire, jr., Franklin (Western Illinois)
Honorable-mention All Conference in the Missouri Valley after he started all 11 games and threw for 2,914 yards and 20 touchdowns, good for 264.9 passing yards per game (a school record). He was named National Offensive Player of the Week by College Sports Madness at one point last year.
Alec Kocour, sr., Catholic Memorial (Illinois State)
Kocour made second-team All Conference in the Missouri Valley last year after starting all 12 games at safety, and he was also voted as one of the team captains. He posted 91 tackles and led all defensive backs in that category within the conference. That included 14 tackles against powerful North Dakota State.
Colin Downing, sr., Whitefish Bay (Iowa State)
Downing will enter his fourth year punting with the cyclones and had one of his best seasons last year at 41.1 yards per punt. For the second straight year, he finds himself on the Ray Guy Award watch list for the nation's best punter.
Conor Blount, soph., Waukesha West (Oregon State). Blount may still have to work his way up the depth chart, but he did get playing time at QB in 2016, seeing action in four games before a knee injury sidelined him for several weeks.
Wisconsin: K Connor Allen, soph. (Brookfield East); DE Michael Balistreri, fr. (Grafton); OL Tyler Beach, fr. (Port Washington); LB Luke Benzschawel, fr. (Grafton); Brett Connors, jr. (New Berlin West); WR Sam DeLany, fr. (Kettle Moraine); DE Matt Henningsen, fr. (Menomonee Falls); DE Billy Hirschfeld, jr. (Arrowhead); S Blake Mielke, soph. (Arrowhead); David Pfaff, soph. (Homestead); Peter Roy, jr. (Muskego)
Minnesota: K John Mack, soph. (Arrowhead); Brady Wieland, fr. (Saint Francis)
Northwestern: SB Eric Lutzen, jr. (Pewaukee)
Michigan: TE Conner Edmonds, fr. (Germantown)
Michigan State: Noah Harvey, fr. (Arrowhead); Jack Henrichs, fr. (Homestead)
Iowa: WR Max Cooper, fr. (Catholic Memorial); QB Max Duchow, fr. (Kettle Moraine); TE Tommy Kujawa, fr. (Greendale); TE Peter Pekar, sr. (Greendale)
Iowa State: OL Josh Mueller, fr. (Homestead); DE Sam Seonbuchner, jr. (Arrowhead)
Air Force: DT Hawk Wimmer, fr. (Franklin)
Ball State: OL Andrew Poenitsch, soph. (Sussex Hamilton)
Central Michigan: TE Jonathan Carson, jr. (Messmer/Shorewood)
Columbia: RB Turner DeMuth, sr. (Whitefish Bay)
Drake: QB Alex Bray, soph. (Catholic Memorial); WR Steven Doran, jr. (Germantown); OL Ryan Lemke, sr. (Germantown); OL Jordan Lewinsky, sr. (Homestead); QB Ben Nienhuis, fr. (Oconomowoc); DL Tyler Terveer, sr. (Whitefish Bay); DB Terry Wallen, sr. (Brookfield Central)
Eastern Michigan: LS Drake Sutton, soph. (Menomonee Falls)
Illinois State: DE Adam Conley, sr. (Franklin); Mitchell Brees, jr. (Greendale); OL Chad Kanugh, jr. (Franklin); Jacob Powell, fr. (Arrowhead)
New Mexico: LB Dyson Chmura, soph. (Waukesha West)
North Dakota: OL Dan Bell, sr. (Menomonee Falls); DB Jordan Canady, fr. (New Berlin Eisenhower); FB Brett Finke, fr. (Muskego); Nick Honerlaw, fr. (South Milwaukee); Mitch Meindel, sr. (Catholic Memorial); LB Jake Rastas, fr. (New Berlin Eisenhower); OL Ryan Tobin, fr. (Muskego)
North Dakota State: DE Cole Karcz, soph. (Germantown); DE Justice Kelly, fr. (University School); RB Demaris Purifoy, soph. (Wauwatosa West)
Northern Illinois: S Jackson Abresch, sr. (Arrowhead); OL Cal Dassow, fr. (Sussex Hamilton); OL Vincent Hughes, soph. (Franklin); DL Marcus Kelly, soph. (Waukesha West); K Josh Orne, sr. (Kettle Moraine); OL Alex Schlee, soph. (Geramantown); LB Alex Schwab, sr. (West Allis Hale); OL Nathan Veloz, soph. (Oak Creek)
Northern Iowa: RB Jaylen Campbell, fr. (Catholic Memorial); RB Rashadeem Gray, sr. (Whitefish Bay)
Princeton: WR Jordan Argue, jr. (Arrowhead)
South Dakota: OL Sam Ruetz, fr. (Franklin); TE Brett Samson, fr. (Oconomowoc); Nathan Schultz, fr. (Arrowhead)
South Dakota State: DB Jarek Berg, fr. (Oconomowoc); OL Mike Dobrenski, fr. (Franklin); S Alex Romenesko, jr. (Arrowhead)
Syracuse: OL Sam Heckel, fr. (Waukesha West)
Valparaiso: DE Cullen Bauer-Trottier, fr. (Port Washington); TE Alex Kluck, fr. (Cedarburg); OL Brady Sullivan, soph. (Arrowhead)
Western Illinois: K Nathan Ericksen, soph. (New Berlin Eisenhower); OL Tom Kirsch, jr. (Arrowhead); QB Sean McGuire, jr. (Franklin); LS Nick O’Boyle, fr. (Whitnall)
Western Michigan: OL Mike Caliendo, fr. (Brookfield East); DL Zack Taylor, fr. (Catholic Memorial)
Wyoming: DL Javaree Jackson, fr. (Wauwatosa West)