Until fifth grade, Connor Lucas was a ball boy for the Grove City High School football team. He spent his first two years of high school playing football at Grove City Christian alongside his brother, Cody Lucas, and for his dad, Clyde Lucas, who was the Eagles' head coach.

Until fifth grade, Connor Lucas was a ball boy for the Grove City High School football team. He spent his first two years of high school playing football at Grove City Christian alongside his brother, Cody Lucas, and for his dad, Clyde Lucas, who was the Eagles' head coach.

This season, junior Connor Lucas returned to Grove City, which coincides with the return of Dawgs football.

"Grove City always has been a football town," said Lucas, who has traded in his job as ball boy to compete for time at tailback and strong safety. "Two of my three brothers played football here. After my dad retired at the end of last season I transferred here. I love the atmosphere here."

Lucas was a first-team all-state defensive back for Grove City Christian last season, as the Eagles reached a Division VI state semifinal before losing to eventual champion Norwalk St. Paul 52-7.

Lucas is one example of some of the current players who played elsewhere last season, but transferred to Grove City when the levy finally passed. In addition, Grove City has numerous players who stayed and did not play football last fall.

"We're a rusty football program," second-year coach Matt Jordan said. "But we keep getting better. We have some newbies. Some kids would have come out last year as juniors, but didn't have an opportunity. Now as seniors they're looking at this as their last hurrah."

Practice began Aug. 2 with coaches and players excited to be back. The honeymoon quickly wore off, however, as the grueling two-a-days were accompanied by heat and humidity. Yet eight days into practice, Grove City still had 106 players in the program. The payoff comes Aug. 27, as the Dawgs return to action by playing host to defending Division I state champion Hilliard Davidson.

How's that for a welcome-back present?

"Nobody is going to give us anything just because we didn't have sports last (fall)," Lucas said. "We have to go out and take it to earn that respect back."

For Grove City, the path back to respectability should begin with defense. In 2008, Davidson ended Grove City's season with a 38-7 win in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs. Grove City started that season 0-3, but rebounded to finish 6-5 overall and second in the OCC-Ohio at 6-1 behind Pickerington Central (7-0). The Dawgs defense allowed 17.3 points per game that season.

"We're not getting the production we want out of that unit right now," said Jordan, four days before the team's first scrimmage against Hilliard Darby on Aug. 14. "That's a concern. Defense is more important than offense. We want our defense playing as a unit with 11 guys getting to the ball."

As Jordan searched for the right 11-player configuration on defense, some key players were highlighted in defensive backs Lucas (5-foot-7, 160 pounds) and senior Christian Smurthwaite (5-10, 165), linebackers Zach Cochran (5-9, 210), Aaron Lewis (5-11, 225) and Ken Reichle (6-1, 195) and defensive end Dalton Chapman (6-6, 255).

Reichle, who played for Hilliard Bradley last season, was second-team all-district in Division II as he finished with 93 tackles and five sacks.

"I went to Grove City my freshman and sophomore years," Reichle said. "I had a good season at Bradley, but when the levy passed I decided to come back here. I'm real excited. The atmosphere is sweet. We got about 1,000 fans at Bradley and we'll get 10,000 here. That gets you hyped up."

Grove City's offense is also bursting with competition, most notably at quarterback where junior Nick Davis (5-10, 175) and senior Luke Smurthwaite (6-1, 195) are in a heated battle, according to Jordan.

Smurthwaite was Grove City Christian's backup quarterback last season, as he finished second on the Eagles in rushing with 555 yards and six touchdowns, and passed for 259 yards and five touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Davis opted to stay at Grove City and not play football a year ago.

A similar battle is taking place in the backfield with Lucas, junior Ryan Barbari (5-8, 170) and sophomore Jordan Fisher (5-8, 185). Neither Barbari nor Fisher played football last season.

Jordan expected an answer to the quarterback and running back situation after the second scrimmage Aug. 20 against Worthington Kilbourne.

Grove City's wide receiver corps is perhaps the most talented position group, according to Jordan. The Dawgs feature five seniors in Tyler Emmelheinz (5-7, 150) and Jake Green (6-3, 180), Olentangy Liberty transfer Josh Meyers (6-0, 175), Colton Rector (5-10, 180) and Christian Smurthwaite.

Last season, Meyers caught 41 passes for 569 yards and five touchdowns for Liberty.

Inexperience marks the offensive line however. Center Ryan Burton (5-11, 245) is the only offensive lineman who played varsity last season, as he was at Teays Valley. Senior Bobby Brown (6-6, 240), a starting center on Grove City's basketball team, has come out for football and is slated to start at right tackle.

"He hasn't played since eighth grade," Jordan said.

Senior left guard Matt Liefhiet (5-10, 220) has not played in two seasons. In 2008, he broke his leg on the final Saturday before the season began. In addition, Jordan expects to use sophomores Hayes Davis (6-1, 255) at right guard and Brandon Glover (6-4, 295) at left tackle.

"We're going to go with our five baddest dudes," Jordan said. "We have high expectations for them and we hope they step up."

Jordan has set expectations for a .500 season with the caveat that anything can happen. He referred to his first season in 2008 as an example.

Regardless of Grove City's win-loss record, Jordan said he expects to compete each week and his team will bring passion and enthusiasm.

"As a team we're excited to get the season going," Lucas said. "We're pushing ourselves a lot harder because we know nobody expects us to rebound. We'll be underdogs from day one and that pushes us even harder."