Coach Jeff Pharion doesn't mince words when he talks about the senior class of his St. Charles Preparatory School football team.
"We have a 'big' senior class, and we have a lot of them as well," said Pharion, whose team has 24 seniors. "We've had big senior classes before, but usually they are smaller guys, like running backs and wide receivers, but this group has size. We have 10 linemen in this class, and that's a lot in comparison to what we normally have."
Leading the way up front are senior tackles David Heil (6-foot-6, 295 pounds) and Nathan Puthoff (6-5, 285). Two of five returning starters on offense, Puthoff has verbally committed to Kent State and Heil has received interest from several Division I colleges.
"As a senior you have more responsibility," said Heil, whose team finished 6-4 overall last season and 0-2 in the CCL-Silver Division behind Watterson (2-0) and DeSales (1-1). "I learned a lot from last year's seniors about what we have to do to help the younger guys. Now we're the ones showing (the underclassmen) how to do things."
Senior quarterback Ryan Bailey (6-1, 190) returns after completing 52 of 94 passes for 685 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 164 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries.
"I'm definitely more confident coming in. I'm on the same page with the coaches when it comes to the offense," Bailey said of running the Cardinals' spread attack.
"Ryan has great confidence and we've only added a couple new things for him," Pharion said. "He's been a commanding presence for us and he was elected captain by his teammates, so he's a good leader."
Seniors Joe Montgomery (3 catches, 45 yards) and Graham Plageman (5 catches, 31 yards) return as starting wide receivers and senior Sean Hennessey (5 catches, 80 yards, 1 touchdown) is back at tight end.
One wild card for the Cardinals is junior NiQuille Bell, who lined up at running back, wide receiver and quarterback last fall. The 5-9, 185-pounder rushed for 194 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
"We're going to have NiQuille all over the field," said Pharion, who is in his fifth season. "He's a special kid. We might have him line up out wide, at tailback or even as quarterback in some 'wildcat' sets. We don't want to confine him. We want to get the ball to him in space."
Pharion said the Cardinals will use a tailback-by-committee approach with seniors Michael Hamrock (5-11, 225), John Quinn (5-10, 190) and George Sims (6-0, 210) and sophomore Jacob Nowell (5-7, 185). They replace 2013 graduates Sean Fitzmartin (1,376 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) and Jonathan Radney (738 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns).
"Sean Fitzmartin was built powerfully, but these guys are bigger," Pharion said. "We have four powerful backs. We're going to pound the ball, but we also have some good receivers."
Returning starters on defense are senior Andy Deak at linebacker, senior Ben Hale at free safety, senior Gabe Klingler at defensive end and Quinn at linebacker.
Hale, who has verbally committed to Bowling Green, had two interceptions, 66 tackles and 10 pass-breakups last season. Quinn led the team with 121 tackles, eight for losses, and Klingler had 39 tackles and a team-high 3.5 sacks. Deak had 60 tackles with 2.5 sacks.
"We have Klingler back at end and two of our top linebackers are back," Pharion said. "Plus, we have Ben Hale at free safety with the way he plays the ball."
Sophomore Will Groeber will handle kicking and punting duties. The left-footed kicker replaces 2013 graduate John Colosimo, who averaged 36.5 yards per punt and made 11 of 16 field goals and 27 of 29 extra points.
"We want to make sure that our special teams start off strong," said Pharion, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30, at Pickerington North. "Will is a talented young kicker and it's just a matter of him getting his feet wet at the varsity level."
St. Charles has dropped from Division I, Region 3 to Division II, Region 5 in the new seven-division playoff format implemented by the OHSAA.