Even with one of the area's top returning quarterbacks in hand, first-year Pickerington High School North football coach Nate Hillerich loves what he saw from his defense throughout the preseason.
The Panthers will have their first opportunity to prove how far they've come on both sides of the ball Friday, Aug. 25, when they play host to Mississauga (Ontario) Clarkson.
Under former coach Tom Phillips, who stepped down in the offseason to become the director of player personnel at the University of Cincinnati, the Panthers made four Division I playoff appearances in 10 seasons, including a year ago when they went 8-4.
Senior quarterback Jimmy Weirick is back to lead the offense after throwing for 28 touchdowns and making second-team all-district last season.
There also are several players back from a defensive unit that is looking to improve after allowing an average of 21.1 points per game last year.
"Defensively, we'll be aggressive," Hillerich said. "We have a ton of speed on defense and we're going to get after the quarterback. The strength of our team could be our defense."
The Panthers are playing a team from Canada for the first time in program history.
Clarkson went 4-5 in its inaugural season last fall and again will make more than a six-hour trip to face a team from Pickerington: In week three of last year's regular season, the Chargers lost to Central 17-9.
Larry Jusdanis, who played for Central Florida as well as at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and then spent parts of three seasons in the CFL, returns as the Chargers' coach.
Last season, in addition to losing to Central, Clarkson lost to DeSales 49-12 and played two other teams that made Ohio's playoffs, losing to eventual Division II state champion Cincinnati LaSalle 31-13 and eventual Division III playoff qualifier Cincinnati Mount Healthy 21-14.
The Chargers finished 4-5 last season, defeating Zanesville 40-0. The Blue Devils went 2-8 but had reached a Division III state semifinal in 2015.
"We have some pretty good players and should be pretty decent in some places," Jusdanis said. "I think we'll be much better than last year."
About 400 boys attend Clarkson, according to Jusdanis.
He's high on a group of wide receivers that includes senior Nick Mardner (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), junior Clark Barnes and sophomore Nic DeJesus.
Defensively, the Chargers have size up front with senior Kyle Hergel (6-3, 310) and junior Kalil Dava (6-3, 290), and should feature senior Cameron Gilmore and junior Adam Sedore at linebacker.
"It's opening night of football in Ohio, so it'll be crazy," Jusdanis said. "We're hoping to be physical and just keep up to speed. We have a year of strength and conditioning and I think we're pretty athletic. I think we're big and strong, and our football acumen is the thing we have to catch up on."