Four players with their college futures already solidified likely played big parts in the game-planning of the Pickerington Central and Hilliard Bradley high school football teams as they prepare to meet in a first-round Division I, Region 3 playoff game Friday, Nov. 2.
The host and third-seeded Jaguars, who are 9-1 and have won seven consecutive games, have a pair of Division I linebackers in Zach Hummel (Cincinnati commit) and Cannon Blauser (Ohio University commit) who could determine whether the defending state champion Tigers can get their power running scheme going.
On the flip side, sixth-seeded Central, which is 8-2, has a pair of defensive linemen in Karter Johnson (Texas Christian commit) and DeWayne Carter (Duke commit) who possess a combination of size and speed that Bradley coach Mike LoParo rarely has seen.
The Central-Bradley winner plays second-seeded Clayton Northmont or seventh-seeded Hilliard Darby in a regional semifinal Nov. 9.
"You're never comfortable in the playoffs because everybody is very good, but getting to draw the defending Division I state champions is tough," said LoParo, whose team is looking to avenge a 42-31 loss to Central in a regional semifinal last season. "My concern is their (defensive line) against our offensive line. Their D-line is very good and brings a lot of pressure. We're going to have to hold up front and give (quarterback) Griffin (Veil) time. I think the key to the whole game is their D-line against our O-line."
Central's defense, however, is much more than just Carter, who has 58 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks, and Johnson, who has five tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two sacks.
Junior linebacker Dom Marasco has emerged as the Tigers' leading tackler with 111 and has 10.5 tackles for loss and one interception, while senior linebacker Isaiah O'Connor has 96 tackles and seven tackles for loss and junior linebacker Ty Hamilton has 74 tackles and two fumble recoveries, including one he returned for a touchdown.
In the secondary, senior Terry Simuel is a three-year starter who has three interceptions and sophomore Lorenzo Styles Jr. has two interceptions to go along with explosive speed.
Veil is in his first season as the Jaguars' starting quarterback but has completed 151 of 243 passes for 2,325 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions and has rushed for 215 yards and four touchdowns.
Jack Duffer (44 receptions, 1,053 yards, 14 TDs), Trey Warner (39 receptions, 564 yards, 4 TDs) and Patrick Day (23 receptions, 237 yards, 1 TD) are Veil's top targets and running back Jack Richards has rushed for 742 yards and 14 touchdowns on 161 carries to go along with two touchdown receptions.
"They're on a long winning streak and they clinched their (OCC-Cardinal Division title)," Tigers coach Jay Sharrett said. "You can tell they're riding a lot of momentum into the playoffs. You can tell they've been in the playoffs and that they know how to build up to this moment. (Veil) does a great job facilitating their offense, and they don't turn the ball over. He doesn't make mistakes and seems like he's always in second- or third-and-short situations."
Keeping miscues to a minimum is among the aims for Central's offense after a fumble set up a score by Reynoldsburg during a 24-21 loss Oct. 19 that ended the Tigers' run of winning at least a share of 12 consecutive league titles.
In a 31-30 loss to Lancaster on Oct. 5, Tigers quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw was intercepted twice.
Central bounced back from the loss to the Raiders to beat Grove City 40-0 on Oct. 26. That same night, Bradley crushed Delaware 49-0 to wrap up the outright OCC-Cardinal title.
"We get to this point going into Week 11, it's hard to say that it's just normal because not everybody (makes the playoffs), but we've played a lot of tough ballgames," Sharrett said. "We've played some tough (games) to the end and lost and some tough to the end and won. But I (remind) them that nobody goes into the second round of the playoffs at 0-1 because if you're 0-1, you stop playing and our guys know that. You've got to be able to handle the pressure and mindset. I'm not saying our guys are used to it, but they're seasoned."
Crenshaw has a team-high 114 carries for 284 yards and six touchdowns and is 45-for-93 passing for 886 yards with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Jamir Jackson leads the Tigers with 672 yards and 10 touchdowns on 110 carries. Lance Matthews (49 carries, 266 yards, 2 TDs), Nick Mosley (35 carries, 316 yards, 3 TDs) and Sirron Smith (46 carries, 307 yards, 4 TDs) are other key running backs.
Styles has 17 catches for 339 yards and five touchdowns, Simuel has 10 receptions for 176 yards and three scores and Jaquwon Crawford also has three touchdown catches.
"They're trying to run (Crenshaw) quite a bit," LoParo said. "They have a stable of backs that I think are all very good runners and their receivers are very good, too. The key for us is we've got to be lined up correct and match their physicality.
"We can't turn this into a revenge game. It's the first round of the playoffs and we happened to draw the defending state champions. We'll give it our best effort Friday night."