With Jake Butt, Warren Stoddard and Dylan Weigel among its returning players, the Pickerington High School North football team expected its defensive front to make it difficult for opposing teams to run the ball.
Defensive tackle Geno Rollo has helped enhance that effort.
A 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior who split time between playing defense on junior varsity and taking snaps on the offensive line on varsity a year ago, Rollo leads the Panthers with 8.5 tackles for losses during their 7-0 start.
In addition to having three solo and one assisted tackle in a 49-27 win over Reynoldsburg on Oct. 5, he had two tackles for losses.
"I played in j.v. games last year on defense, so I'm used to messing with the big boys," Rollo said. "They've got me playing inside and we've got a couple different defenses. I've had to learn the whole defense, so everything is kind of new to me, but it's nothing too tough. (The offensive linemen) are definitely a lot bigger and more talented, and a lot more experienced than the ones on j.v."
"Geno's really come a long way, but we have high expectations for him," coach Tom Phillips said. "We will not let up on him. He's good right now and he's on the journey to be great. I think he can be a great football player."
Phillips was disappointed with his team's defense during a non-league schedule in which the Panthers beat St. Charles (50-22 on Aug. 24), Cincinnati Princeton (41-20 on Aug. 31) and Fremont Ross (41-13 on Sept. 7).
Against Fremont Ross, the Little Giants' Jabree Lather rushed for 182 yards on 26 carries and the Panthers gave up a pair of first-quarter touchdowns.
Since then, North has inserted a series of new looks on defense and posted shutouts over Newark (56-0 on Sept. 14) and Pickerington Central (37-0 on Sept. 28) and a blowout win at Lancaster (45-14 on Sept. 21).
Against Reynoldsburg, the Panthers led 42-7 by halftime. The Raiders finished with 155 yards rushing, but only 26 came in the first half.
North began substituting midway through the third quarter, and its regulars on defense spent much of the final two periods on the bench.
"Early in the season we ran our base (defense) but you can't win championships only running one defense," Butt said. "We put in three packages where we have different numbers of backs and different blitz packages, just anything to confuse the offense. Going into the season people were overlooking our offensive and defensive lines, but our defensive line has stepped up."
On defense, Butt plays either end or linebacker based on the package.
Lining up alongside Rollo on the defensive line in recent weeks has been senior Trae Harris, who has moved from linebacker to nose guard.
Junior Alex Reigle has been seeing significant action at end, with Stoddard and Weigel at linebacker.
Kody Kasey (23 solo tackles), Mason Olszewski (3 interceptions), Godwin Igwebuike (4 interceptions), Roland Ladipo (4 interceptions) and Frankie Weirick (4.5 tackles for losses) all have made key contributions in the secondary.
"Our first three games we were giving up 20 points a game, but we went back to our base defense, our 50 front, against Fremont Ross," Phillips said. "We tried to use our speed and with that we got a little bit undisciplined. Sometimes we were being too reckless. Our kids have responded since then."
"We all realize how good we can be, and we're all just stepping up as a team and working together," Rollo said. "It does feel good (to have success). Coming into this season we were looking at it like this was our year, so I guess this is the year we're stepping up to our potential."