Offense has question marks heading into season
Opponents of the Olentangy Liberty High School football team have grown accustomed to facing a spread offense that typically features a quarterback who can rack up passing yardage and pick up first downs in a hurry.
The starter the last two years, Joey Longhino, was the most prolific passer in program history. He completed 156 of 226 passes last season for a program-record 2,214 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and finished his career with a program-record 4,095 yards passing.
The offense still has the potential to be potent with senior quarterback Matt Kessler complemented by an experienced line and veterans at the skill positions. The Patriots return senior starters Dan Rhinehart and Carter Rudek at wide receiver and Daryian Davies at running back.
"Teams look at us and think we pass a lot, but if you look at our stats last year, we were close to 50-50 running and passing the ball," said Rhinehart, who was honorable mention all-district in Division I with 34 receptions for 519 yards and three touchdowns. "That was strictly because of Daryian. I think that's what our offense needs."
Davies, who was honorable mention all-district and first-team all-OCC-Central Division, finished with 1,057 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns. He rushed for 893 yards and 11 touchdowns on 168 carries and caught 20 passes for 164 yards and three scores.
"This is a little bit different for us and we've gone to a little bit of a different offense," said coach Steve Hale, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30, against visiting Olentangy Orange. "We'll see how it all plays out. We're going to have a lot of things in our playbook, but we're still trying to figure it all out."
Liberty will be looking to end its playoff drought after missing the last three postseasons. Before that, the Patriots made six consecutive playoff appearances from 2004-09.
With a seventh playoff division added this fall, Liberty will compete in Division I, Region 1.
Last year's finish at 7-3 overall put Liberty 13th in Division I, Region 3. The top eight qualified for the playoffs.
In its first season in the OCC-Central, Liberty went 5-2 to tie Upper Arlington for third behind co-champions Dublin Coffman and Hilliard Davidson (6-1).
"One of our top priorities is getting back to the playoffs," said senior lineman Luke Callahan (6-foot-4, 280 pounds), who has committed to play at the University of Cincinnati. "We want to show everybody this year that we can reverse the curse."
Callahan will be part of a front line that's the biggest and most experienced in Liberty's 11 seasons.
Also back is junior Hunter Littlejohn (6-4, 270), who has offers from Illinois, Boston College and Akron, and seniors Eric Lorenzen (6-3, 260) and David Trzcinski (6-3, 260). The line lost Zach Shank, a 2013 graduate now playing at Dartmouth.
That experience up front should help the Patriots' first-year starting quarterback in Kessler manage the offense.
"Matt's been coming up through our system so he knows it very well," Hale said. "He's a good athlete, a lacrosse player, and throws a good ball. He's a smart kid who can understand defenses and knows what we're trying to achieve."
Others expected to contribute at the skill positions include junior Jacob Wiseman, who will play slot receiver and running back, and Skylar Taphorn, a senior move-in from Florida who Hale said possesses speed and will play split end.
Liberty must replace two of its top receivers in tight end Bryson Wray (31 catches, 458 yards), who was second-team all-district and first-team all-league, and Matt Muntean (24 catches, 427 yards), who was first-team all-league.
On defense, the Patriots will look different after graduating a number of starters, including linebackers Grant Cartwright, Brandon Miller and Robert Suarez, defensive backs Austin Mullins and Tyler Welch and Shank on the line.
Senior linebackers Kyle Wagner and Jacob Worrell had solidified starting spots in preseason camp along with Rudek and Taphorn at cornerback. Hale also has been impressed with junior linebackers Jackson Druckenbroad and Shelton Eggleston.
The Patriots have a new defensive coordinator in Jeremy Arend, who takes over for longtime assistant Rob Griffiths.
Griffiths stepped away for personal reasons, Hale said.
"We're running a similar scheme (3-5-3), but the kids have had to learn some new words and new terminology," Hale said. "We're still trying to find the right combinations on that side of the ball."