Clay Nixon returns for a second season as the Watkins Memorial High School football team's starting quarterback, but the senior looks quite a bit different.
He's grown almost two inches and added about 20 pounds since the Warriors finished 4-6 overall and 2-4 in the OCC-Capital Division won by Big Walnut (6-0).
Now 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Nixon should look no worse for wear after games nights, either, not with a more experienced offensive line providing protection.
"I've just tried to toughen up," he said. "Coming out of last year, I knew I had to get stronger so I've hit the weights pretty hard."
Seniors Logan Jackson (6-1, 225), Bryce Visnick (6-2, 225), Chad Fitch (5-9, 240) and Marshall Berry (6-1, 245) and junior Lance Langel (5-9, 235) will be up front. Jackson is moving from center to right guard with Fitch playing the other spot. Visnick and Berry are the tackles, and Langel will be the new starting center. Junior Levi Krempel (6-1, 185) is the tight end.
"Clay is really going to benefit from their experience and his added strength," second-year coach Jeff Severino said. "He's throwing the ball better. And even more importantly, he's more decisive with his reads and more confident against the blitz. We think he can have a big year."
Behind Nixon, junior Bryce Phillips and senior Christian McGee are the tailbacks hoping to replace graduate Matt Truex, a first-team all-league and second-team all-district pick who ran for 1,089 yards. Phillips is more of a cut-back runner while McGee is the power option out of the base I-formation.
Senior Cory Christman is expected to be one of Nixon's top receivers after making second-team all-league. Senior Joe Bales also will play receiver.
Nixon is the punter, and Severino has added soccer players Matt Dersom and Connor McCafferty for kicking duties.
"Offensive line and quarterback are our strongest positions until everyone else catches up, and last year it was just the opposite of that," Severino said. "Those guys just didn't have a lot of experience then."
In the base 50 defense, look for Fitch to play nose guard now that senior Mike Morehouse (5-10, 210) has moved to tackle. Berry, Jackson, Krempel, sophomore Reno Reda (6-5, 220) and Bales will contribute as well.
The Warriors, who won two of their final three games a year ago and opened 2-1, need to replace first-team all-league pick Ricardo Hall at linebacker, where junior Tyler Cruikshank (5-10, 200) will play after becoming a starter early last year.
Another promising linebacker is sophomore Jake Kincaid (6-1, 230), who played on last year's 8-1 freshman team.
The secondary will include Christman and junior Chris Skaggs at corners along with Nixon and senior Jesse Farley, who also will see time at receiver. Seniors Tyler Guzik and Tyler Friendinghaus are the free safeties while junior Devonte Marable is the strong safety.
"We have to control things up front," Severino said of his team's defensive goals. "Our linebackers making tackles is the key."
Team captains are Nixon, Christman, Jackson and Visnick.
The Warriors' schedule looks much different than it would have because of the levy defeat in the South-Western City Schools. Walnut Ridge is replacing Westland as the opener, and Thomas Worthington is filling Franklin Heights' spot for the ninth game on Oct. 23. However, there still will be six OCC-Capital games with the addition of first-year Hilliard Bradley.
"We're ready to get started," Nixon said. "I think everyone's tired of hitting people wearing black and gold."
The Warriors also play host to Medway (Ava, Ontario, Canada) on Sept. 11. The teams will have dinner together the night before, and Watkins Memorial's players and their families will house the Canadians during their stay.
"Our kids are really looking forward to that week," Severino said. "We'll have a little fun and make some new friends and then get ready to start the OCC schedule (Sept. 18) against the defending champs (as Big Walnut visits)."