Junior linebacker Shuron Howard believes team chemistry -- or lack thereof -- may have prevented the Westerville South High School football team from realizing its full potential last season.
However, he expects the Wildcats, who went 8-3 overall and qualified for the Division I playoffs for the third time in four seasons a year ago, to be a tighter-knit group on and off the field this year.
South opens Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Groveport.
"Our team was a lot more separated with different guys in different groups last year, but everybody's more together this year," Howard said. "We've adopted the motto 'Faith, Family, Football' because we've all come together as one big family to play football this year, and I think that's going to make a positive difference for us."
South's spread offense will have a different look this season after losing several key players to graduation, including quarterback Nick Renzetti, wide receivers Marcus Ball and Jalen Bell and tailback Noah Prentiss.
Renzetti completed 206 of 364 passes for 3,241 yards and 34 touchdowns a year ago. Bell had 76 receptions for 1,209 yards and 16 touchdowns, Ball had 53 catches for 779 yards and seven touchdowns and Prentiss rushed for 1,064 yards and seven touchdowns on 176 carries.
Senior Timmy Bates will start at quarterback and will have two returning starters to throw to in seniors Torrodd Carter (WR) and Darryl Long (TE), who is a University of Kentucky recruit.
Carter had 33 catches for 580 yards and five touchdowns last year and was honorable mention all-OCC-Cardinal Division, and Long had 28 catches for 434 yards and four scores and was special mention all-district and second-team all-league.
Senior Darien Miller, who rushed for 428 yards and six touchdowns on 56 carries last year, and junior Devan Wade are expected to be South's top running backs.
The offensive line should be a strength, as the Wildcats have five seniors on the line who have started multiple games in previous seasons in left tackle Rob Dowdy, left guard Adam Thesing, center Nick Woodbury, right guard Kris Holman and right tackle D-Andre Curenton.
Thesing was second-team all-league last year, and Dowdy has received several Division I scholarship offers.
"We have more of an experienced offensive line this year, so our focus is more on our running game," Curenton said. "Our running backs are going to surprise some people with how fast and agile they are."
South's 4-3 defense also lost several key players to graduation, including Gabe Whittmann on the line and Ball and Myles Collier in the secondary. Ball had four interceptions a year ago.
Bates started in the secondary last year and had seven interceptions and was first-team all-district, but he isn't expected to play much defense this season now that he's the starting quarterback.
The Wildcats' defense has lost two other experienced players in senior lineman Darrell Stokes and junior linebacker John Edwards. Both are expected to miss the entire season with injuries.
As a result, South has only three returning starters on defense in senior linebacker Kamaree Walden, senior lineman Curtis Mitchell and senior free safety Trey Harden.
Mitchell and Walden were second-team all-league last season and, according to coach Rocky Pentello, both are both being recruited by several colleges. Others expected to start include Long on the defensive line, Wade and junior Charles Thigpen at cornerback and Howard and senior Ethan Frank at the other two linebacker positions.
"I think we have a lot of talent, but we also have a lot of holes to fill, especially on defense," Pentello said. "We're young up front on our defensive line and they're going to be tested early. We just need to find a way to stop people. The kids are working hard, though. They're tough and coachable kids."
South finished third (5-2) in the OCC-Cardinal last year behind Hilliard Darby (7-0) and Dublin Scioto (6-1) and lost to top-seeded Darby 31-10 in the first round of the playoffs.
According to Howard, the Wildcats have much higher expectations this season.
"We have just as much talent as we had last year and we have a better work ethic this year, so our goals are to go undefeated, win OCC and win state," he said.