Preseason No. 17: Glenbard North

Last season: 8-2 overall, 6-1 DuPage Valley, lost in the Class 8A first round to Palatine, not ranked in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll

Season ahead: The DuPage Valley was arguably the toughest conference in the state last season. That was greatly due to Wheaton Warrenville South and its dominance, but Glenbard North wasn’t far behind.

The Panthers possessed one of the area’s top defenses last season and their only conference loss was to the Class 7A state champions Wheaton Warrenville South.

In 2011, the Panthers aren’t as experienced as they were a year ago, but their goals are no different.

“We talk about expectations for our program,” Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens said. “They know that it’s a very strong football conference. They have to meet a certain level or we can’t compete with the rest of the conference.”

Star power: Phil Jackson knew he was going to be Glenbard North’s featured running back this season, and he prepared for it that way. Jackson put on nearly 20 pounds and improved his 40-yard dash time. He’s bigger and faster, and that is likely a major problem for his opponents. “He’s worked hard in the offseason,” Wilkens said. “He went and saw a speed coach and he put in the effort in the weight room.”

Breakout performers: Glenbard North’s offensive linemen could be the key to the season. The Panthers return three starters in Cody Burandt, D’Angelo Hodges and Dan McHale. All three are primed for big seasons. “It’s nice to have those three guys back because they’re quality kids, quality players,” Wilkens said.

Defensive difference-makers: Glenbard North doesn’t have a lot of defensive experience returning, but the Panthers do bring back defensive backs Alex Mendez and Tremel Smith. Both have speed and can make plays. “In the secondary, we’re as fast as we’ve been in years,” Wilkens said. “It’ll help us shut down the lanes and reduce the field.”

Newcomer to watch: There will be two Jackson for opponents to deal with this year. Sophomore Justin Jackson, Phil’s younger brother, will start in the secondary and will backup his older brother in the backfield.

Schedule breakdown: The Panthers’ schedule is backloaded. They face Wheaton Warrenville South, Wheaton North and Naperville North in their final three regular-season games. If Glenbard North is going to compete for the conference, it’s going to come down to that stretch.

Key game: Oct. 7 vs. Wheaton Warrenville South -- Glenbard North’s only loss in the DuPage Valley last season was to the Tigers. Wheaton Warrenville South will be the conference favorite again.

What they’re saying: “It’s really a process,” Wilkens said of improving his inexperienced team. “If we’re successful, yes, it’s rewarding. Taking an inexperienced kid, turning him into a quality player is very fulfilling as a coach. There’s also nothing wrong with being very experienced.”