Throughout most of the past decade, Pickerington High School Central could be expected to have one of the biggest celebrations among central Ohio football programs on national signing day.
Whether it involved Ohio State recruits like 2009 graduate Zach Boren, players like Notre Dame signee and 2012 graduate Eilar Hardy or a group like the one from a year ago that included Taco Charlton (Michigan) and Nick Walter (Miami University), the Tigers have reaped the benefits of their success on the field with numerous Division I scholarships.
That might not be the case again next February, but Central doesn't believe it should be mistaken for a program on the way down just because its 2014 class lacks the same kind of high-profile recruits.
A year after the Tigers returned just five starters but still went 7-3 overall and earned a share of their seventh consecutive league championship, Central has eight returning starters on both sides of the ball.
The Tigers open Friday, Aug. 30, at Centerville in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Showdown and play host to Middletown on Sept. 13 in their other non-league game after a week-two bye.
"Things have definitely come quicker this year," said senior Colby Simkins, who will start at quarterback for a second season. "It seems like we have a lot of veterans and a bigger senior class. About 90 percent of our offense is returning. All of the players want to (win) and we've got a bunch of guys who want to go to Division I schools."
Although the Tigers no longer have Charlton or 2013 graduate Greg Basalyga (LB) to lead the defense after both made first-team all-district in Division I, the entire secondary and the rest of the linebacking corps returns.
Senior strong safety Jordan Pieczynski (5-foot-8, 185 pounds) and senior inside linebacker Isaiah Richmond (6-0, 220) are the top returnees on defense.
Others with experience as starters on defense include senior tackle Keith Roberts (5-10, 200), senior linebacker Jaisun Alexander (6-0, 205), junior linebackers Clay Burk (5-11, 195) and Clayton Glasco (6-2, 215), senior free safety Vinnie Allen (5-9, 170), senior cornerback Rudy Stefanitis (6-1, 190) and junior cornerback Eric Marshall (5-10, 170).
Others looking to contribute on defense are seniors Josh Clouse (5-11, 220), Brennan Dudziak (6-6, 260), Vince Lewis (6-0, 255) and Keith Roberts (5-9, 190) and junior DaVon Hamilton (6-4, 265) on the line, sophomore Seth Currens (6-3, 180) and junior Brad Morris (6-2, 180) at linebacker or in the secondary and senior Tawain Gordon (6-0, 190) in the backfield.
"Going into camp this year we had a lot of guys who knew the drill, so we've just been doing a lot of fine-tuning as opposed to installing the offense and defense," said coach Jay Sharrett, who is 101-21 in 10 seasons. "There's no doubt that our strength is our experience. The thing we've got to make sure of is that we get a snapper and a punter."
Dudziak, who according to Sharrett has been recruited by Ohio University as an offensive lineman, is back at left tackle.
Other returning starters up front are Clouse at center and senior Tyler Boyd (5-11, 240) at right guard. Lewis and Hamilton also should see time on the offensive line.
Simkins completed 48 of 130 passes for 916 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions and will be surrounded by nearly the same group of skill-position players who helped the Tigers average 23 points during the regular season.
Central was shut out in both matchups against Pickerington North, losing 37-0 during the regular season and 24-0 in the first round of the Region 3 playoffs, but the Tigers and Panthers shared the OCC-Ohio Division title at 6-1 after North was upset 13-10 by Grove City in the final week of the regular season.
With Brent Walton (631 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns) lost to graduation, Gordon (442 yards rushing, three touchdowns), Pieczynski and Richmond should get the bulk of the carries at running back.
Senior Cris Reyes (5-11, 195) is back at tight end after finishing with eight receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown a year ago. Marshall, who had eight catches for 237 yards and two scores, and senior Andrew Meyer (6-1, 190), who added six receptions for 191 yards and one touchdown, should be among the team's top wide receivers.
Sophomore Devon McMillon is back at kicker after making all 31 of his extra point attempts. Stefanitis was the punter during the preseason.
Central, which has made the playoffs in all but one season under Sharrett, is now competing in Division I, Region 2 after the OHSAA's expansion to seven divisions.
"Senior leadership led us to a 7-3 season last year," Sharrett said.
"That being said, we had a couple dogfights. This year, having the kind of experience and camaraderie that we have is going to help."