Illinois Valley quarterback CJ Manning didn't take long to show he belonged on the varsity level. Just four games into the 2011 season, Manning was named the starter as a wide-eyed freshman who stood just 5-foot-6 and around 140 pounds.

Illinois Valley quarterback CJ Manning didn't take long to show he belonged on the varsity level. Just four games into the 2011 season, Manning was named the starter as a wide-eyed freshman who stood just 5-foot-6 and around 140 pounds.

In his first action, Manning displayed his athleticism with a 40-yard touchdown run and clinched the victory over Glide in overtime with a touchdown pass.

Manning went 4-3 as a starter and Illinois Valley finished 5-5. His return this season, along with steady workhorse running back Gabe Miller, gives the Cougars reason for optimism.

But for Illinois Valley to return to the state playoffs, it is Manning who must shoulder even more of the load in 2012. If the offseason is any indication, he appears up to the task. Manning added 25 pounds of muscle to go along with a three-inch growth spurt.

"He committed himself fully this summer to being a better quarterback," said Illinois Valley coach Ray Yarbrough. "He was at all of our spring and summer stuff, was constantly watching film, and every day he was in the weight room. He's looking pretty good, and we've definitely opened our playbook for him."

Manning will have a talented cast around him, including Miller, who is a three-year starter at running back. Despite standing just 5-5 and 135 pounds, Miller narrowly missed reaching the 1,000-yard plateau for the second consecutive season. He was selected honorable mention Class 3A all-state.

"A lot of people see he's only 135 pounds and don't think much of him, but he's a tough runner for a kid at that weight," Yarbrough said. "We've put even more things in this year to get him the ball. I think we are going to see big numbers from him."

Manning and Miller will have the benefit of a sizeable offensive line that includes center Cade Doyle, tackles Matt Brock and Will Worley, and guards Nick Worley and Gregorio Duarte.

Defense was Yarbrough's biggest question mark entering the season, but that's been partially shored up by the emergence of Duarte at middle linebacker to complement returning starter T.J. Hughey.

"He's really torn it up there and will be real solid for us," Yarbrough says of Duarte.

Yarbrough and staff plan to rotate a handful of bodies along the defensive line in their 3-5-3 scheme.

The Cougars will be tested early, opening the season at home against Class 4A opponent Hidden Valley. Illinois Valley will have a pivotal three-game stretch at home late in the season, beginning with an Oct. 12 showdown against Lakeview, which may determine which team receives the Southern Cascade Hybrid's second playoff berth.