Strange as it may sound, coach Darren Waters might be tempted to close his eyes at times when the Licking Heights High School football team's offense is on the field.

Strange as it may sound, coach Darren Waters might be tempted to close his eyes at times when the Licking Heights High School football team's offense is on the field.

"I think I will, or maybe I'll just turn around when we've got the ball," he said before a recent practice, pausing for a laugh before adding a quote famously attributed to the late Woody Hayes, true or not: "Only three things can happen on a pass and two of them are bad."

Sleepless nights might be in the offing then for Waters, who stubbornly and perhaps even against his better judgment has implemented the spread offense at Licking Heights.

Just last season, running back Dan Pennington capped a brilliant career as a four-year starter by being named the Division III district Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for more than 1,800 yards and 30 touchdowns.

"It's certainly going to be different with a lot four- and five-receiver sets," Waters said of the offense, which averaged 35.3 points a year ago as the Hornets finished 8-2 overall and third (5-2) in the MSL-Cardinal Division won for a fourth consecutive season by West Jefferson (7-0). "It's just that this seemed like the best fit now for the kids we have."

Mike Vyrostek returns as the offensive coordinator. He has to replace a two-year starting quarterback in graduate Cody Bailey, who, would have loved the new approach.

Junior David Cooper, sophomore Taylor Curtiss and sophomore Darius Strickland were vying for the quarterback job in camp, and a two-player platoon is possible once the season begins.

Fans looking for the Hornets to light it up offensively should enjoy the fact that four of the first five games are at home, including the "Battle For Broad Street" matchup against Watkins Memorial on Sept. 3. Another plus is that there are six home games .

The rivalry game with Watkins certainly should be a study in contrasts, as the Warriors have switched to a triple-option attack modeled after defending Division I state champion Hilliard Davidson.

"We've talked about a two-quarterback system," said Waters, who has 33-19 record entering his sixth season at Licking Heights, including 25-7 since 2007. "We'll make a final decision after our last scrimmage (last Friday against Utica)."

One of the new running backs is junior Matt Nichols, whose brother, Mark Nichols, keyed Newark Catholic's drive to the Division VI state championship in 2007 as a 2,000-yard rushing tailback.

The receivers include senior Ty Stallings, junior Jeff Smith and sophomore A.J. Mitchell, among others. Sophomore Ron Dawson also could play a role in the passing game as the tight end in certain formations.

The offensive and defensive linemen include seniors Mikie Barrett and Kevin Young. Junior Alex Mulcahy, who is 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, will be the left tackle on offense.

Graduation took a heavy toil up front on both sides of the ball. Alex Kielmeyer made second-team all-district on offense, and he's now at the University of Cincinnati as a long-snapper.

Ed Kamara, who was first-team all-district on defense, also departed after the Hornets finished 12th in Region 11 a year ago with only the top eight qualifying for the playoffs. Pennington made first-team all-state.

Early on, Waters is hoping the defense will carry the load until offensive stability and continuity can be established. The new defensive coordinator is Jeff Boyer, the school's long-time baseball coach who used to be the defensive coordinator at Newark Catholic.

"We were pretty pleased coming out of the first scrimmage (against Heath). We've got two real good offensive football teams for our scrimmages, so we're able to see where we're at," said Waters, who also added Kim Waaland as the offensive line coach. "Jeff's been a great addition to the staff. He was a coach here before for two years when we won two league titles (in 1991-92)."

Senior Devin Ortiz is an outside linebacker and will be a co-captain with Young, and Dawson will play inside linebacker. Senior Kevin Carr, a first-team all-district selection, returns as the place-kicker.

The varsity newcomers who could have an impact include sophomore outside linebacker Josh Ausberry, a California transfer whose brother, David Ausberry, is playing at USC.

Junior Zack Dunbrack, a center and outside linebacker, is another to watch.

"I guess we're blessed with some good bloodlines," Waters said, laughing again.

Still, all those changes on offense might be unsettling for an old-school coach such as Waters, who led the Hornets to their only playoff victory in Division IV when the 2007 team finished 10-2. He said the strategy in the program's lower levels will be left unchanged as coaches stress the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, and a stacked-I offensive formation remains in place at the middle school.

That isn't to say Waters is having second thoughts.

"I'm just glad I'm not calling the plays," he said. "I like three yards and a cloud of dust."