Senior quarterback Adam Leeds has seen his share of big games with the Bexley High School football team. But they all pale in comparison to the program's first playoff appearance last year.
The Lions lost to Logan Elm 21-14 in the first round of the Division III playoffs, but Leeds still get chills when he thinks about the game.
"It's a feeling I'm never going to forget," said Leeds, whose team finished 7-4 overall and 6-1 in the MSL-Ohio Division to finish second behind Licking Valley (7-0). "The atmosphere was just insane. There was so much emotion because you were actually playing for something."
"Making the playoffs was the culminating end to everything we've been trying to do," coach John Smith said. "It was big for the kids in the community to finally get that monkey off our back."
If they are to get back to the postseason, the Lions must retool an offense led by graduate Seth White, a ThisWeek Super 25 selection at quarterback. He rushed for 1,430 yards and 24 touchdowns and completed 100 of 186 passes for 1,249 yards and five touchdowns with seven interceptions in nine games.
Leeds (5-11, 180), who stepped in at quarterback when White was suspended two games for a violation of team rules, is expected to take over behind center. Sophomores Greg Sandsten (5-9, 146) and Sam Kastan (5-9, 182) are slated to be backups.
"It's going to be tough on him because everyone's going to compare him to Seth," Smith said. "Adam can do a lot of the same things but just a little differently."
"Everyone has been saying Seth was the man who drove our team, but there were 21 other guys on the field with him," Leeds said. "We did lose a big part of our team, but if we all come together, we can do together what we did (last year)."
Bexley, which averaged 19.9 points last year, will need a more balanced offense. The Lions lost receivers Alan Hess (34 catches for 480 yards and three touchdowns) and Jon Thomas (33 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns) but return a deep group of receivers led by seniors Drew King, Martin Binau, Ronnell Armstrong, junior Elijah Scott and sophomores Jalen Robinnette and Brian Podlasiak.
"We lost two receivers who were statistically two of the top receivers Bexley has ever had, but we may have a better receiving corps than we had a year ago," Smith said. "Kids who were question marks at the end of last season really stepped it up in the offseason."
Vying for time at running back are senior Mike Edwards (5-9, 180), junior Kyle Boddie (5-6, 170) and sophomores Alec Robins (5-8, 143) and D.J. Jones (5-6, 128). Senior Mikey Penn (5-10, 190) will be at fullback. Edwards rushed for 560 yards and three touchdowns on 141 carries.
On the offensive line, senior Danny Webb (6-2, 240) started at right tackle but has been moved to the left side to replace graduate Jake Brandt. Webb, a second-team All-MSL selection, will join seniors Martin Raabe (5-11, 195), Matt Stanton (5-9, 200) and St. John Leck (6-1, 206). Senior Matt MacKay (6-1, 170), juniors Jacob Luscher (5-9, 165), and Colin Phillips (6-2, 305) and sophomore Derek Cain (5-9, 170) are competing to start at center.
"We may not have one person with the stats Seth had last year, but we will not be depending on one person for our offense this year," Smith said.
Gone from last season's defensive lineup are the leading tackler and sacks leader.
Linebacker Aaron Knisley had 73 tackles, and Julian Coleman had 5.5 sacks.
In their 3-4 alignment, the Lions are two deep on the line with seniors Webb, Raabe, Leck, Alex Delap (6-1, 192) and Devlin Carver (6-0, 195), a transfer from Pickerington Central, expected to see time.
Senior Dylon Myers (5-9, 196), Tommy Bolon (5-10, 168), Jack Lake (5-9, 150) and Cain should see time at inside linebacker. Juniors Tommy Zervas (6-1, 205) and Josh Lake (5-11, 190) will be at the outside linebackers. Zervas was second-team all-MSL, and Lake had 65 tackles.
Vying for the cornerback spots are Leeds, Scott, Jones and Robinnette and seniors Scott Podlasiak (5-10, 164) and Ziyad Khaloufi (5-8, 168).
Seniors Penn, Christyan Hertlein (5-7, 159) and Armstrong, juniors Boddie and David Stewart (5-5, 134) and sophomore Cameron Stewart (5-11, 157) will be in the mix at safety.
"We lost a lot of key guys defensively, but we might be a little stronger as a whole," Smith said. "We do lack some experience but hopefully we can get these kids coached up."