Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata respects Clayton Northmont's passing game.

Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata respects Clayton Northmont's passing game.

However, when the Panthers travel to Northmont on Friday, Aug. 28, for their season opener, their top defensive priority will be to slow the Thunderbolts' running game.

"First, we need to defend the run well," Santagata said. "By doing that, we'll make sure they can't hurt us with their play-action passing game."

Senior Avery Miliner (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) is back as Northmont's No. 1 tailback. He rushed for 877 yards and five touchdowns and was first-team all-Greater Western Ohio Conference-Central Division last year, as the Thunderbolts finished 4-6.

The primary targets for Northmont senior quarterback Chris Timmons (6-2, 180) are senior tight end Jarell Taylor (6-5, 217) and junior wide receiver Logan Zerkle (6-0, 170).

Darby's defense features six returning starters in ends Jake Harms and Christopher Schultz, tackle Mo Debyan, linebackers Braeden Hook and Mason Schmeling and cornerback Willie Lewis.

Last season, Hook (97 tackles) and Harms (22 tackles) were first-team all-OCC-Cardinal and Schmeling (81 tackles) and Schultz (59 tackles) were second-team all-league, as Darby went 9-2.

"Their quarterback runs a zone read out of the spread, where he reads your defensive ends," Santagata said. "They have a really good running back who is quick and has good moves. We need to keep him in check but not at the expense of giving them time to throw, because their wide receivers are speedy and quick as well."

Quarterback Nick Powers leads Darby's spread option after rushing for 1,229 yards and 18 touchdowns and throwing for 1,136 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

The Panthers' other returning offensive starters are Harms at left tackle, right tackle Zach King, Schultz at wide receiver, fullback Kyle Colvin and slotback Ritchie Palsgrove.

Colvin rushed for 574 yards and seven touchdowns on 117 carries last year and was second-team all-league. King was special mention all-league.

Leading Northmont's 4-4 defense is senior linebacker Jimi Saul (5-10, 205), who had 69 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last year and was first-team all-league.

"We want to set the tone early by running the ball well and putting the first points on the board," Powers said. "Northmont is really athletic, so our younger guys need to step up and make plays to help replace the graduates that we lost. Our line did a great job during scrimmages and they will need to keep that up."