Pioneers counting on newcomers to step up
Not since its inaugural 2008 season has the Olentangy Orange High School football team had so many holes to fill.
The Pioneers return only one starter on offense and five on defense from a team that won its final four games to finish 6-4 overall and tie Big Walnut for third (4-3) in the OCC-Capital Division behind New Albany (7-0) and Olentangy (6-1).
Senior Jake Lewis, a tight end, is the lone returnee on offense, but his biggest impact was as a linebacker where he will be a third-year starter.
"We don't have a lot of starters returning, but I think we're coming along pretty well and we're coming together," said Lewis, who was second-team all-league at linebacker. "We're a pretty tight group. I think for us, because of our experience, we have to come out hard and keep fighting."
Coach Brian Cross said the lack of experience in the offensive front could be an issue.
"My biggest concern is that we lost all of our interior (offensive) line," said Cross, who opens his sixth season Friday, Aug. 30, at Olentangy Liberty. "We have (senior) nose guard Cole Cunningham, who played some on the (offensive) line last year, but not much. None of these guys have game experience, and that's a big question mark."
Cunningham (5-foot-11, 220 pounds) is the lone senior likely to start up front at left guard. Juniors Nick Lee (center) Kenny MacMillian (left tackle; 6-2, 242), Kyle Pellington (right tackle; 5-10, 262) also expect to start, with junior Sam Damko and sophomore Tyler Houston competing at right guard.
A completely new backfield will include junior quarterback C.J. Stablein, who started as a defensive back last season. The tailbacks look to be a rotation of seniors Jeddy Awuah and Alex Menzo and sophomore Tyler Lichter. Senior Jake Bobrowski and sophomore Blake Skuratowicz will rotate at fullback.
"Stablein is very athletic with good speed and he throws the ball fairly well," Cross said. "It's a matter of him making the right reads. He has a pretty strong arm and throws a decent deep ball. He can run the football if everyone is covered. He can be a solid quarterback with game experience.
"I feel good about Bobrowski and Skuratowicz at fullback and I feel like we have three good guys at tailback. They have a chance to be pretty decent."
Receivers include seniors Corbin Lehman and Christian King, who is a move-in from Hilliard Darby. Flankers will be seniors Emmanuel Djan and Alec McCurry, with sophomores Matthew Collins and Hunter Shepherd also in the receiving corps.
"We're fairly athletic compared to what we were last couple of years. We have more kids who can run and catch than in the past four years," said Cross, who plans to make the most of that athleticism on the stadium's newly installed artificial turf. "We have eight to 10 kids capable of being pretty athletic when they're on the field. But even though these kids are athletic, they don't have a lot of experience.
"We're still going to try to run the ball, but we're also going to try to spread the field. We don't have as much in the wings (in the usual wing-T attack), but we have a lot of receivers and want to make teams defend the whole field."
Players returning in the multiple 4-4 defense are Cunningham, senior linebacker Justin Gels (honorable mention all-league), Harris, senior defensive end Lenn's Kamba and Stabelin.
Joining Gels and Harris in a rotation at linebacker are senior Drake Straty, Damko, junior Logan Seum and Skuratowicz.
"Our most experience is on defense, and I think we have six players who can play for us at linebacker," Cross said. "I think they can all be pretty good."
Being the Pioneers' quarterback likely will limit Stablein's time at safety. Expected to see action in the defensive backfield are Awuah, McCurry, Menzo, junior Matt Booth, junior Nick Buening, Collins and Lichter.
Cunningham and Kamba will be joined up front by Bobrowski, Lee, MacMillian and Pellington.
According to Cross, the battle for the punting spot is wide open, with seniors -- Skyler Siles and Jordan Vinicky -- competing for place-kicking duties.
"The kids have a good attitude and they work extremely hard," Cross said. "This is the least amount of experience we've had coming back for us. We have 18 seniors and three of them only kick for us, so that leaves 15 senior position players.
"The inexperience of playing on Friday nights is an issue, but despite having only 61 or 62 players, we have decent depth.
"Like everyone else, it's just a matter of staying healthy."
The Pioneers moved from Division I, Region 3 to Division II, Region 5 in the new OHSAA's seven-division format that was approved last spring. Watkins Memorial has left the OCC-Captial to join the Licking County League, and the Warriors have been replaced by Worthington Kilbourne.