Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata said his defense will face a stern test when the Panthers play host to Boardman in their season opener on Friday, Aug. 30.
The primary focus for the Panthers' defense will be quarterback Darius Sanders, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior who proved to be a dual threat while engineering the Spartans' spread offense during scrimmages.
Sanders served as the backup quarterback last year when Boardman finished 4-6. The Spartans, who averaged 25.5 points per game and allowed an average of 34.8, lost five of their final six games a year ago after winning three of their first four.
Boardman's ground game is expected to be led by running back Turel Thompson, who rushed for 570 yards and 19 touchdowns on 56 carries (a 10.2-yard average) last season and had 20 receptions for 282 yards and four scores.
Other key players on offense for the Spartans include fullback/tight end Evan Crouch, wide receiver Matt Filipovich and linemen Nick Cordova and Jimmy Mikesell.
Darby, which was 11-1 last season, returns three starters on its 4-3 defense in senior tackle Brian Casey and senior linebackers Nate Green and Trevor Parker.
"They run a zone-read spread and they have a lot of very athletic and speedy players who can score quickly, so we have to make sure we tackle well," Santagata said. "Most importantly, we have to defend the run as well as possible, and by that, I'm not just talking about their running backs. Their quarterback can throw and run equally well out of the shotgun, so we need to contain him and make sure he doesn't hurt us too much with his feet."
Santagata said the Panthers' spread-option offense will need to establish its running game to set up its play-action passing.
Darby returns five starters in senior center David Still, senior tackle Josh Humbert, senior guard Tony Hajjar and senior slotbacks Devon Rogers and Jacob Stacy, and Santagata said the other six first-year starters, most notably senior quarterback Nate Green, are making rapid progress.
"We didn't move the ball that well in our first scrimmage against Grove City, but we did a lot better in our second scrimmage against Marysville," Santagata said. "Our goal is to establish ourselves at the line of scrimmage so we can run the ball. It's also important that we secure the ball and avoid turnovers."
Boardman's 4-4 defense is led by Cordova and Crouch at linebacker and Thompson in the secondary. Last year, Cordova had a team-high 90 tackles and Crouch led the team with five sacks.