Like last fall, the Reynoldsburg High School football team enters the season with a senior-laden roster and hopes to end a long playoff drought.
This year's group doesn't have proven athletes to lean on like 2012 ThisWeek Super 25 selection Emmanuel Beal (DL), University of Cincinnati-recruit Mykel Traylor-Bennett (WR/DB) or veteran running back Kumar Collins, but that isn't something the Raiders are viewing as a negative.
Instead, Reynoldsburg hopes a 32-member senior class with a commitment to fundamentally sound football will help it contend for its first playoff berth since 2001.
The Raiders, who are 13-7 in two seasons under coach Buddy White, open Friday, Aug. 30, at New Albany.
"Everybody thinks we're going to be down, but we've got 32 seniors," said White, whose team finished 7-3 a year ago and was 10th in Division I, Region 3. "This year's team is very disciplined and very committed. These kids have worked really hard. The only thing I'm worried about is that few of these kids have been under the lights. We're feeling good because they're really good football players."
The most experienced returnees after the Raiders lost 29 players to graduation are seniors Jordan Aekins (5-foot-10, 173 pounds), Tyrek Pugh (5-9, 203), Solomon Grace (6-0, 225), Jake Grant (6-4, 290) and Anthony Hines (6-0, 250).
Aekins will be in his third season at quarterback after completing 47 of 103 passes for 768 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 368 yards and four scores on 39 attempts.
Pugh returns at strong safety and also should see action again at fullback.
Grant enters his third season as a starter at offensive tackle, and Hines is a returning starter at center.
Also back are senior Demetris Givens (5-11, 155) at wide receiver, senior Montrael Green (5-11, 236) at linebacker and senior two-way lineman Raphael Turner (5-8, 250).
"Last year we had more talented players, but this year we've got more football players," Grace said. "This year we're more of a team even though we don't have an actual star. Last year we took it up a notch but didn't get to the playoffs. This year we worked really hard in the offseason."
Seniors David Moore (5-8, 204) and Zack Mehan (6-1, 195) are expected to be at running back replacing Collins, who rushed for 777 yards and nine touchdowns while making honorable mention all-district.
Givens, senior Andrew Norman (6-0, 190) and juniors Andrew Callender (6-0, 165), Ashton Dulin (6-0, 170), Derien Jennings (5-11, 170) and Conner McCloud (6-0, 197) are at wide receiver. They are looking to replace Traylor-Bennett, who had 20 catches for 355 yards and four touchdowns while making second-team all-district.
Seniors Elijah Camara (6-4, 240) and Christian Hill (6-0, 230) are at tight end.
Joining Hines, Grant and Turner on the offensive line should be juniors Mike Harville (6-1, 230) and Christian Eubanks (6-3, 255).
Reynoldsburg also lost two-way lineman Jeff Jones, defensive lineman Josh Edwards, linebacker Daquian Williams and defensive back Tre' Rowe to graduation in addition to Beal, who had 23 tackles for losses and 14 sacks in just eight games.
Jones was special mention all-district and is playing for Morehead State, Edwards was honorable mention all-district, and Williams (Notre Dame College) and Rowe (California University, Pa.) are others playing collegiately.
Trying to replace Beal at defensive end is his younger brother, senior Corey Beal (6-2, 200). Camara and sophomores Darius Dunning (5-11, 250) and Mark Gooden (6-1, 203) are others on the defensive line.
Joining Grace and Green at linebacker are senior Milik Mills (6-2, 230), junior Gary Boggs (5-8, 180) and sophomore Jaquan White (5-8, 205). The secondary will include Dulin, McCloud, Norman and Pugh.
Senior Jordan Watkins is back at kicker, Pugh or Watkins are competing to handle the punting duties and Dulin and sophomore Cameron Young (5-11, 180) are expected to return kicks.
Reynoldsburg moves from Division I, Region 3 to Region 2 because of the expansion of the OHSAA to seven divisions last spring.
The Raiders won two of their three non-league games a year ago, with the loss a 61-14 setback to Findlay. Replacing Findlay on the schedule is Hilliard Bradley (Sept. 6).
Reynoldsburg finished third in the OCC-Ohio at 5-2 behind co-champions Pickerington Central and Pickerington North (6-1), with league losses coming 21-20 to Central and 49-27 to North.
White hopes his team can come out on the other end of games such as that one this fall.
"I tell them to spend most of their time working on fundamentals," White said. "This year's team will be so much more disciplined than last year's. Out of my three years, this has been the easiest coaching job."