Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata didn't know how effective his 4-3 defense was going to be this season given that it had to replace nine starters who were lost to graduation.
Among the graduates were cornerback Caleb Day, who was named OCC-Cardinal Division co-Player of the Year and first-team all-district in Division I last year, and linebacker Cameron Kohl, who had 148 tackles and five sacks and was first-team all-district and all-league a year ago.
Day is playing at the Illinois and Kohl is playing at Ohio Dominican.
Fortunately for Santagata, despite having only two returning starters in lineman Brian Casey and linebacker Trevor Parker, the Panthers haven't missed a beat, as they are allowing an average of 9.6 points.
Last season, Darby allowed 14.4 points per game while going 11-1.
"We've had to replace a lot of key defensive players, including a couple of college recruits who made a lot of big plays for us the past few seasons," Santagata said.
"We didn't have guys who were quite as talented or experienced waiting to replace them, but our players have done a good job of listening to their coaches, working hard and learning as we go.
"Our defense has progressed well for the most part and this past Friday we played our best defensive game of the season."
Darby defeated Dublin Jerome 30-7 on Sept. 27 to improve to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the OCC-Cardinal Division.
The Panthers limited the Celtics to 28 yards rushing and 80 passing.
"They really moved the ball on everyone that they've played and to hold them to that (yardage total) is great," Santagata said of Jerome, which is 2-3 and 0-2. "Our defensive staff did a great job of game-planning and our kids came out and executed at a high level. I'm very proud of them."
Santagata said the stout play of Casey and linemen Jake Harms, Josh Humbert and Kyle Knudsen has made it difficult for opponents to run on the Panthers.
"It all starts with the guys up front," Santagata said. "Our linemen have progressively gotten better and they've held their own at the line of scrimmage and have allowed the guys behind them to make plays."
The other starters are Parker (33 tackles), linebackers Braeden Hook (21 tackles) and Ben Radcliff (34 tackles) and defensive backs Trevor Cox, Zack Donatelli, Hunter McSweeney and Devon Rogers (29 tackles).
"Trevor Parker is a team captain and he's become the vocal leader of our defense," Santagata said. "Our linebackers have communicated well and made some nice adjustments. Each of our first five opponents has had a different style of offense and our defense has met the challenge each time, for the most part."
Despite Darby's success, Santagata said his defense needs to do a better job guarding against big plays.
The Panthers surrendered an 80-yard touchdown pass against Jerome in the second quarter and gave up a 76-yard touchdown run in a 21-0 loss to Hilliard Davidson on Sept. 6.
"The thing we have to get better at is avoiding giving up long plays," Santagata said. "We gave up a long touchdown run that really hurt us against Davidson and Jerome scored on a long throw, too."
When Darby travels to Canal Winchester on Friday, Oct. 4, for an OCC-Cardinal game, the focus will be on shutting down the Indians' running game.
Canal Winchester, which employs a spread offense, lost to Westerville Central 57-14 on Sept. 27 to drop to 0-5 and 0-2, but the Indians rushed for a season-best 167 yards and racked up a season-best 396 total yards.
Against Central, quarterback Nick Hammond was 11-for-22 passing for 127 yards and a touchdown, running back Lamont Martin ran for 72 yards on 11 carries and wide receiver Skyler Scott had six catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
"We'd like to shut down their run to make them one-dimensional, but we can't over-commit or we'll get burned by a long pass," Santagata said.
Darby's offense, meanwhile, will look to get its running game going as Canal Winchester allowed 291 yards rushing on 36 carries against Central.
Fullback Lorenzo McLaurin leads the Panthers in rushing with 354 yards and five touchdowns on 79 carries. Quarterback Nate Green has rushed for 345 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries and slotback Jacob Stacy has run for 126 yards and four scores on 27 carries.
"I think it's important for us to establish our running game early on, because that's what we base our offense off of," Santagata said. "But we're going to try to stay a little more balanced offensively and spread the ball around to a number of different players to keep them off-balance."