Westerville South High School football coach Rocky Pentello figured his defense would experience some growing pains, considering it includes only three returning starters.
Moreover, only one of those returning starters, defensive end Curtis Mitchell, is playing the same position as last season. Trey Harden has switched from cornerback to free safety and Kamaree Walden has shifted from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
Still, Pentello was confident his 4-3 defense would improve under defensive coordinator Ricky Vaughn, and so far it has.
"There were a lot of questions about our defense coming into the season because we've got so many new starters in there, but Ricky Vaughn has done a great job of organizing our defense and helping it improve," Pentello said. "Our kids play hard for Ricky and all of our defensive coaches, and our defense is now one of our strengths."
South defeated host Grove City 17-14 on Sept. 13 to improve to 2-1 and begins OCC-Cardinal Division play Friday, Sept. 20, at Canal Winchester. The Indians, who are in their first season in the OCC after being in the MSL-Buckeye, fell to 0-3 with a 37-14 loss to Lancaster on Sept. 13.
South allowed 180 yards rushing on 44 carries and 55 yards passing against Groveport in a 48-20 win over the visiting Cruisers on Aug. 30. The Wildcats forced four turnovers, including three -- an interception by cornerback Charles Thigpen and fumble recoveries by linebackers Ethan Frank and Shuron Howard -- that set up touchdowns.
The Wildcats allowed 225 yards passing, including three touchdowns of 25 yards or longer, in a 24-14 loss at Clayton Northmont on Sept. 6 but limited Grove City to 168 total yards and forced three turnovers.
A fumble recovery by defensive back Daylan Haynie at the Grove City 34-yard line led to a 31-yard field goal by Phil Wenzinger in the first quarter and a fumble recovery by Walden at the Dawgs' 1 set up a touchdown run by running back Darien Miller on the ensuing play that gave South a 17-14 lead. An interception by Harden at the Wildcats' 5-yard line with 36 seconds left sealed the outcome.
"Defense wins championships and our defense is very talented with playmakers across the board," Walden said. "We always knew we could play defense like this once our younger guys got some more experience, and now it's time to prove our doubters wrong."
According to Vaughn, the Wildcats don't have any star players on defense.
"We're a no-name, vanilla defensive unit, like that defense the Miami Dolphins had when they went undefeated (in 1972)," he said. "We've really come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. I realized how young our defense is when we gave up four 60-yard runs on the first day of two-a-days, but our defense took that as a challenge and we've gotten better and better ever since then.
"The first few weeks were an adventure, but we're running to the ball better now and we've improved our tackling quite a bit. I'm really proud of the way we played against Grove City."
Canal Winchester, which is averaging nine points per game, is looking to jump-start its spread offense after losing quarterback Zach Bontempo to a season-ending collarbone injury in a 41-6 loss to Olentangy on Aug. 30.
William Totten, who starts at cornerback, took over for Bontempo for the final three quarters against Olentangy and has been splitting duties at quarterback with Nick Hammond.
Against Lancaster, Hammond was 9-for-14 passing for 106 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown to wide receiver Skyler Scott, and Totten was 5-for-8 passing for 55 yards with two interceptions.
Vaughn wants his defense to stay aggressive and put pressure on the Indians' quarterback, whoever that is.
"We're an aggressive defense and that's the way I've always coached," he said. "My philosophy is that you can't throw the ball well when you're on your back."
South's spread offense is led by quarterback Timmy Bates. Through three games, he has completed 42 of 76 passes for 562 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions and has rushed for 167 yards and two scores on 26 carries.
Running back Darien Miller has rushed for 357 yards and seven touchdowns on 72 carries, wide receiver Torrodd Carter has 23 receptions for 301 yards and one touchdown and tight end Darryl Long has 10 catches for 163 yards and a score.
Penalties and turnovers have hindered South, however. Against Grove City, the Wildcats had 13 penalties for 125 yards and three turnovers.
"Timmy is the best dual threat we've had at quarterback in a long time and we've been moving the ball through the air and on the ground," Pentello said. "But we're making too many mistakes on offense. Turnovers and penalties have killed us, so have to improve in those areas."
Canal Winchester's 3-5 defense is allowing an average of 33.7 points per game. The Indians surrendered 327 yards rushing to Lancaster and have allowed an opposing running back to gain 100 or more yards in each of their first three games.