Luke Fleming's debut as the starting quarterback for the Marysville High School football team coincided with coach Jeff Gafford's first season.

Luke Fleming's debut as the starting quarterback for the Marysville High School football team coincided with coach Jeff Gafford's first season.

Two years later, Fleming has 18 starts as Gafford's system and style are taking root.

"At first, you're under a new system and as a sophomore you have to learn through mistakes and trial and error," Fleming said. "Now, everything is second nature. I'm teaching the younger guys how to handle situations and the offense. I'm preparing the team for when I leave, yet I'm still here."

Marysville's program took a big step last season.

The Monarchs finished 7-4 overall after losing to Upper Arlington 28-16 in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs. It was Marysville's first postseason appearance since 2001.

In the OCC-Cardinal Division, the Monarchs finished tied for fourth at 4-3 with Olentangy and Dublin Scioto as Westerville South, Olentangy Liberty and Dublin Jerome shared first with 5-2 records.

But the Monarchs lost 29 players to graduation, including second-team all-district selections Kevin Bennett (OL) and Chris Guisinger (LB).

Still, riding the momentum of a successful season, the team took offseason conditioning seriously.

"You never know how the season is going to go, but almost all of our kids did everything they could in the offseason to maximize their God-given talent," Gafford said. "If the season ends up great, they deserve it. If the season doesn't end up great, it wasn't because they didn't prepare. We laid the foundation to be successful."

Fleming excelled in Marysville's triple-option offense. He was special-mention all-district as he finished with 793 yards rushing with eight touchdowns and was 50-for-98 passing for 794 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

"He has a lot of experience going into the season," Gafford said. "It makes sense he should get better at his reads, his passes and his consistency in putting the ball in a safe place on his passes. I think he has done that.

"We're putting more of a load on his shoulders, but we don't need to put all of it on his shoulders."

Fleming is one of nine returnees with starting experience on offense, along with seniors Scott Arnold (G), Brendan Barrett (G), Bryan Barrett (WR), Josh Goad (WR) and Nathan Weeks (FB) and juniors Luke Baird (OT), Chris Coburn (RB) and Hayes Chrispin (RB).

Nathan Weeks moved from tackle to fullback last season and was first-team all-district as he finished with 982 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on 175 carries.

"Weeks' role will expand to play some defense," Gafford said. "We ask our seniors to expand their role and play one-and-a-half ways. We have to be careful in expanding people's roles, because we don't want to put them in a position where they blow assignments because they haven't had enough practice time."

Gafford expects to work Weeks in at strong-side linebacker.

Weeks is an example of one of the many different looks the Monarchs' defense will display. Marysville, which traditionally used a stack 4-3 defense, is changing to a stunt 4-3.

"It features a tilt tackle and there is a lot of movement up front," Gafford said. "Also, when we play base, our philosophy is nobody touches the middle linebacker."

Junior Dylan Dearwester started seven games at middle linebacker last season and, if the new defense works correctly, he should be able to roam from sideline-to-sideline.

"He runs well, he's tall at 6-foot-1, he's intelligent and he's a good tackler," Gafford said. "He's the type of player why the stunt 4-3 is there to begin with. Even though he's not your traditional 6-2, 230-pound middle linebacker, he can move and he's a good guy to have in the middle."

Dearwester is one of four returning starters on defense, along with seniors Justin Brogan (S), Andre Philpot (DE) and Sid Spurlock (DT). Filling out the defense are seniors Bryan Barrett (CB), Colton Rine (DT) and Josh Spain (LB) and juniors Anthony Aquillo (CB), Austin Crain (LB) and Trestin Weikle (LB)

"We're changing our scheme and we have some holes to fill on defense," Gafford said. "The kids are getting better and starting to understand it better. This is like when we ran a new offense two years ago. It took five games for the kids to start getting it. I hope it doesn't take five games for them to start getting it on defense. It will take a little bit of time, though."

At Marysville, special teams share equal time and importance with the offense and defense. The Monarchs' special teams started each two-a-day practice. Gafford makes sure every player knows how to block a punt.

"We believe in it and we spend time on it," he said. "Hopefully, we'll get in a situation where we can win a game with it."

Brogan will handle the place-kicking and punting duties with sophomore Connor Devine as the long snapper and Brendan Barrett as the short snapper.

"Our personnel on cover teams is going to be better than we were a year ago," Gafford said. "Our kickoff team will be deeper and so will our punt-rush and punt team. I'm encouraged in that aspect. Hopefully, we'll be able to pin some people back a little more."

Marysville's expectations are high, as the Monarchs have the seemingly right combination of experience and confidence.

"We realized our potential last year and realized we can play with some of the top teams in central Ohio," Fleming said. "It was a steppingstone for us to get us to where we want to be as an OCC and central Ohio powerhouse.

"Unlike the first year and first half of last year, we've been under the system awhile and we know what's going on. We've implemented some new plays and formations and we're having a blast. We're having fun and enjoying ourselves."