The Bexley High School football team struggled at times a year ago, but the Lions hope the experience its returning players gained will pay dividends this season.
Bexley, which finished 2-8 overall and 1-7 in the MSL-Ohio, returns its top three rushers and two of its top three receivers along with junior Andre Stewart, who saw considerable time at quarterback.
"Through last season, a lot of kids gained a lot of playing time that they probably normally wouldn't have gotten," said seventh-year coach John Smith, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Harvest Prep. "(That was) due to injuries and due to graduation the year before. We had a number of kids who started at least a game or two throughout the year."
The offense features six returning starters including Stewart, who split time at quarterback with 2013 graduate Patrick McClendon. McClendon threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 213 yards on 57 carries.
Joining Stewart in the backfield are seniors Rasheed Morgan at running back (473 yards on 75 carries with two touchdowns) and Jacob Old at fullback (466 yards on 101 carries with two touchdowns.
Senior Greg Miller returns at wing after catching eight passes for 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and senior Chad Meyer is back at receiver.
Only senior Jack Needles at left tackle returns on the offensive line, and there is plenty of competition for the other spots up front.
"Going into camp, developing our offensive line has been a priority," Smith said.
Seniors Dan Lee and Eric Maxwell and junior John Yee are competing at guard, Maxwell and senior Craig Music at right tackle and senior Jake Dorochenko and sophomore Jackson Lee at center.
"All the guys (on the line) are really hard-working," Needles said. "I know that not only the coaches but the rest of the team can trust them to do their best and work their hardest to do what we need to do to win. If we do things the right way, there's no doubt we'll be successful."
Also expected to play key roles on offense are junior Javelle Gray and senior Zach Ward at running back, senior Ochmen Murray and sophomore Corbin Thompson at halfback and senior Teddy Bruning and juniors Nassir Cauthon and Jeff Nicosia at receiver.
Old also will see time at tight end along with sophomore Youssef Abou Hashish.
"I think we're going to be more pass oriented this year," Needles said. "We won't be passing the majority of the time, but more than we have in the past. We have the skill players, the quarterback who can throw, good receivers and great running backs who can make plays. I think that'll be the main difference."
Miller, Morgan and Old were two-way starters last season, with Miller and Morgan also starting at defensive back and Old at linebacker and defensive end. Other returning starters on defense include Dan Lee (DL), Nicosia (DB) and Ward (LB).
They will be joined by senior Ellis Khaloufi, Music and Needles at defensive tackle, Bruning and Yee at defensive end and Abou Hashish and sophomore Izzy Keller at linebacker.
Stewart and Thompson will start at safety, whilc cornerbacks include Meyer, Murray and sophomores Jacob Mittmen and Rico Truss.
Bexley will compete in a revamped MSL-Ohio Division that also includes Columbus Academy, Grandview, London, Madison Plains, West Jefferson and Whitehall. Former MSL-Ohio members Granville, Heath, Lakewood, Licking Valley and Newark Catholic have moved to the Licking Valley Conference.
Worthington Christian will compete at the junior varsity level in football for the 2013 season before fielding a varsity squad in 2014.
"I think from top to bottom it's going to be a positive experience," Smith said. "At times (in the old league) we just weren't able to get over the hump, but we were starting to do the right things. That schedule just didn't allow it. We'll still have Academy and Whitehall, and those are good teams."
Smith -- whose team will be in Division IV, Region 13 after the OHSAA added a seventh division to the football playoffs last spring -- also said he has been pleased with the effort he has gotten from his players as they prepare for the season.
"Overall, and this is no knock on the kids I've had in the past, I've never had a group of kids work as hard as this team in the 17 years I've coached. We've pushed this team, we've gotten after this team, we've run this team and they've responded to everything we've thrown at them."