Several members of a defensive front that helped the Watterson High School football team return to the playoffs after a one-year absence are back this season.
According to senior linebacker Eli Kirk, though, that's only a part of the battle.
During the offseason, the Eagles' defense put its focus on being fundamentally sound to go along with the aggressive attitude that remained intact following a 7-4 finish that included a CCL-Silver Division championship.
They'll need both to be on track to help them navigate through a schedule that includes just three home games. The Eagles open Friday, Aug. 30, at Walnut Ridge.
"We have a lot of mean athletes and we've beaten up a lot of teams with a lot bigger talent pools because we pride ourselves in that," Kirk said. "It comes down to the fact that we've got to be really disciplined. In the preseason, what we kept doing was working on our tackling form and dedication to our responsibilities. I feel like our defense is really far along as far as knowing our responsibilities and our coverage."
Coming off a 2011 season in which it went 3-7, Watterson bounced back with a three-game winning streak to begin the season and a four-game winning streak to close the regular season that included a 24-21 triple-overtime victory over DeSales.
The Eagles, who then lost to Bryan 41-24 in the first round of the Division III, Region 10 playoffs, have a slew of other key returnees on defense.
In addition to Kirk (6-foot-1, 218 pounds), also back are seniors John Bogue (6-1, 277), Nathan DiPalma (6-1, 221) and Kyle Fada (6-2, 253). Bogue had 50 tackles and was second-team all-district.
Senior Ryan Urquhart (5-11, 172) had three interceptions at defensive back, and senior Cody Calhoun (5-11, 201) also is back in the secondary after making 51 tackles and earning honorable mention all-district.
Seniors Joe Brogan (6-0, 254), Noah Dall (6-2, 226) and Jacob Graham (5-9, 206) are others on the defensive line, while linebackers include seniors Patrick Roark (6-2, 181) and Evan Woosley (5-9, 180) and juniors Matt Froehle (6-1, 202) and Jack Haley (5-9, 215).
Others at cornerback along with Urquhart are seniors Walter Green (5-8, 160) and Brady McCurdy (5-9, 176), with senior Patrick Pirrmann (6-2, 183) and juniors Ben Kaminski (5-11, 190) and Sam Maglicic (6-0, 185) joining Calhoun at safety.
Andrew Lorenz, a 2013 graduate who was the district's Defensive Player of the Year, is playing for Ohio Dominican. Joe Winters (Ohio Northern) and Josh Hoyng (Wittenberg) are other linemen and 2013 graduates who are playing collegiately.
"We've just got some pretty solid, steady kids," said coach Dan Bjelac, who is 83-38 in 10 seasons. "Cody does a lot by example and Kyle has played a lot."
Fada, DiPalma and Bogue are expected to be starters on the offensive line as well.
The biggest hole on offense was created with the loss to graduation of quarterback Andy Elberson, who is now playing for Butler.
Elberson finished 65 of 128 passing for 810 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 709 yards and 12 scores while making special mention all-district.
Competing during the preseason to replace Elberson were McCurdy, Maglicic and Pirrmann.
"They all bring something to the table," Bjelac said. "Our depth concern is probably on the offensive line. We've got more back at the skill positions."
Expected to lead the running game is Green, who rushed for a team-best 753 yards with eight touchdowns and was honorable mention all-district. Calhoun ran for 355 yards, but DeAndre Golden -- who rushed for 398 yards a year ago -- transferred to Ready for his senior season.
Kaminski is another tailback, with Haley, Woosley and Graham at fullback in an offense that could show some option and pistol formation looks.
Urquhart returns at wide receiver after finishing with seven receptions for 103 yards, with Roark, senior Wesley Graham (5-6, 146) and juniors Alex Loscko (6-1, 175) and Teddy Walter (5-11, 165) also expected to see action at receiver.
Senior Alec Greene (6-4, 223) had six catches for 131 yards and returns at tight end.
Others on the offensive line include seniors Sean Zielke (5-11, 243), Joe Hamlett (5-11, 202), Chas Parise (5-11, 194) and Jonny Heath (5-10, 237) and junior John Pirrmann (6-4, 230).
After competing in either Division II or III in past postseasons, Watterson has moved down to Division IV with the OHSAA's expansion to seven divisions.
"I think we have the ability to mix it up offensively based on who we play and play fundamental defense in not giving up big plays," Bjelac said. "The bottom line is that you have to get better at a few things. Last year we made mistakes that weren't necessarily turnovers."