Getting off to a fast start will be key for the Watkins Memorial High School football team.
"I think it's imperative for us, being as young as we are, to win some early games to gain confidence as we roll into the Licking County League," said sixth-year coach Jeff Severino, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30 at home against Briggs. "We're coming off a 2-8 season and we're excited to be back in the LCL and playing area schools. But in order to keep that enthusiasm, we need to go out and get a few early wins. As a matter of fact, our goal is to be 3-0 before league play."
Watkins Memorial, which went 2-5 in its final season in the OCC-Capital Division, returns 20 letterwinners -- including seven who started on defense. That experience should help, as the Warriors surrendered 33 points per game between an opening 13-12 loss to Licking Heights and a 13-10 setback to Olentangy Orange in the finale.
Seniors Hunter Holton and Travis Hall and junior Mike Ford started in the secondary, along with seniors Kyle Hickin, Josh Lyday and Preston Jenkins on the defensive line and senior Corbin Lindabury at linebacker. Holton and Ford both had three interceptions.
"I think our defense will be solid, a whole lot better than last year," Holton said. "Right now, it looks like we're starting 11 seniors on defense. We have a lot of experience and we're concentrating on being better on pass defense because we'll see a lot more spread offenses than we saw in the OCC."
Ford will not start in the secondary, as he will be the main replacement for 2013 graduate Brenden Kemp at running back. Lyday is recovering from ACL surgery last January and got a late start in camp.
Holton (CB) and Hall (SS) will be joined in the secondary by junior Taven Jenkins (CB) and seniors Zach Lescalleet (FS) and Isaac Morrison (OLB).
Preston Jenkins and senior Clay Sammons will be at ends, with Hickin at tackle and junior Nathan Miller at noseguard. Lindabury and senior Isaac O'Brien will be the linebackers and they will share team captain duties with Lyday, Holton and senior quarterback Ben Shroyer.
"We have to be able to handle the spread offenses that we will face," Severino said. "That's one of our keys to success. We've got some defensive playmakers with Taven Jenkins, Corbin Lindabury and Hunter Holton. Hickin is 6-foot-6 and 285 (pounds), and he can run. He's a possible Division I (college) prospect."
Shroyer returns to lead the double-slot veer offense and Holton is back at receiver. Shroyer was 77-for-143 passing for 969 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. Holton set school season records for receptions (45) and yards (740) and was special mention all-district in Division II. He also was second-team all-league.
Hickin returns at tackle, and he will be joined by Preston Jenkins at tackle, sophomore Zach Jenkins at center and Sammons and senior Patrick Thompson at guard. Lyday (6-2, 190) started at the center a year ago and should see action at both center and guard.
Ford will likely get most of the carries, but other running backs include O'Brien and senior Cameron Gilbert. Senior Shawn Johnson will line up at tight end, with classmate Justin Fown at flanker.
Replacing Kemp will be difficult, as he set single-season school records for rushes (244) and yards (1,605) and also holds the program record for career touchdowns (49) after scoring 16 times a year ago.
Kemp -- who finished with 3,327 career yards rushing -- was first-team all-district and all-league.
"Mike Ford will step right in there and he'll be a good one," Severino said. "Hunter Holton and Ben Shroyer make a good quarterback-receiver combo. We've got to make plays and work as a team, but these guys have a good attitude and we've got good numbers."
Graduates Bobon Stephanovich (OL) and Jake Sanders (LB) were second-team all-district. Graduate Jerrod Lyon (K) was special mention all-district and classmate Kevin Crawford (DE) was honorable mention all-district.