Injuries took their toll on Franklin Heights last fall, so third-year coach Cory Fenner spent the offseason searching for ways to limit the chances of that happening again.
The Falcons quickly began losing key performers, but none more devastating than quarterback Cody Little. The 2019 graduate was the team's leading passer and rusher as a junior, earning third-team all-state and first-team all-district and all-league honors after rushing for 1,183 yards and 10 touchdowns on 185 carries and completing 115 of 178 passes for 1,576 yards with 16 touchdowns and one interception.
However, in the second game last season, Little suffered a broken leg in a 20-0 loss to Harvest Prep, ending his season and starting the Falcons' spiral.
"I have never gone through a season like that before. It was something different every week," said Fenner, whose team finished 1-9 overall and 0-5 in the OCC-Capital Division. "By the end of the season we were playing some freshmen. Sure, we wanted to get them some experience, but we really needed them to play. We were playing everyone. We're trying to stay a little healthier this year."
Fenner said the Falcons focused on work in the weight room and fitness during the offseason.
"I think it comes down to the offseason training," he said. "The kids have got to prepare their bodies to play. I think talking to the kids about things like nutrition is important. We're also modifying our practice schedule so we can keep kids healthy and still get done what we need to get done. We changed a lot of things from a preparation standpoint."
The changes didn't prevent one major injury. Junior Collin Maynard started his first two seasons and was second-team all-league last fall. However, during a summer camp, the two-way lineman suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for the season.
"Last year we were much more one-way in our starters because we had the roster to do so, but this year I think we're a better football team if we play our kids both ways and keep our best athletes on the field," said Fenner, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30, at Hamilton Township. "We definitely have put a lot more emphasis on finding backups. Most of our players are playing both ways. We're trying to get everyone to learn every position, so if (numerous injuries) happen again, we'll be better prepared."
Senior Ray McDonald, who was special mention all-league last season as a wide receiver and defensive back, said the Falcons learned valuable lessons last fall.
"We have to be able to face adversity and we always have to have someone ready to take that spot," he said. "You never know when you will need to go in."
Franklin Heights returns seven starters from its spread attack, including sophomore quarterback Jeffery Beverly, who was thrust into action following Little's injury. He completed 54 of 120 passes for 386 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions.
"Beverly is much-improved from last year," Fenner said. "As a freshman you never know what to expect, but he's a big body with a strong arm. He's 6(-foot)-4 and can see the field. ... He's going to be a good one, but he's still young."
Beverly's top targets should be returning starters McDonald (22 catches, 282 yards, 3 TDs) and junior Tommy McGeehan as well as sophomore Artell Saunders, who started in the slot.
Although Maynard is missing from the line, senior Aaron Thomas returns at left tackle, senior Alexis Osorio is back at left guard and junior Bobby Watt returns at right guard.
"I think our lines are probably the strength of the team," Fenner said. "You look at their heights and weights, they are big kids and they are physical. The attendance of our linemen in our offseason workouts was great and that hard work has been showing."
The line will be run-blocking for seniors TalonDre Barker and Derwin Harris (37 carries, 97 yards) and junior Adrian Bowers (21 carries, 66 yards, 2 TDs).
The Falcons have seven starters back on defense as they shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
Senior Jamacan Sizemore and junior Sam Rush are back at end, and three starting linebackers return in senior Devin Buchanan, Bowers and Harris.
"We're looking great on defense so far this year," Sizemore said.
"We're flying to the ball and using our speed."
The secondary has two returning starters in McDonald and junior Bradyn Finneran.
"Defensively, the new scheme fits our personnel a little better," Fenner said. "Our front seven is our strength and the back end has new faces, but they are athletic kids who have been working hard.
"We looked good defensively in the first scrimmage. I like the most that these guys are pretty committed. They have good attitudes and are good teammates."
Quarterbacks: *Jeffery Beverly (so., 6-4, 200), Tommy McGeehan (jr., 6-1, 170)
Running backs: TalonDre Barker (sr., 5-10, 170), Adrian Bowers (jr., 6-0, 180), Derwin Harris (sr., 6-0, 210)
Receivers: *Ray McDonald (sr., 6-3, 180), *McGeehan, *Artell Saunders (so., 6-0, 185), Bowers, Casey Bridges (sr., 5-5, 135), Jamir Hopson-Jones (sr., 6-2, 175), Deandre Johnson (so., 5-7, 150), Jae'den Johnson (sr., 6-0, 150), Korbin Kelly (jr., 6-1, 170)
Tight ends: *Jamacan Sizemore (sr., 6-3, 220), Devin Buchanan (sr., 5-8 200), Sam Rush (jr., 6-0, 205)
Linemen: *Alexis Osorio (sr., 6-0, 255), *Jacob Prince (jr., 6-2, 265), *Aaron Thomas (sr., 6-0, 250), *Bobby Watt (jr., 6-2, 265), Noah Adkins (so., 6-0, 230), Raine Doane (jr., 5-11, 220), Kentre Robinson (fr., 5-7, 220), Kenten Smith (jr., 6-2, 205)
Linemen: *Rush, *Sizemore, Osorio, Prince, Smith, Thomas, Watt
Linebackers: *Bowers, *Buchanan, *Harris, Levi Asher (sr., 6-0, 175), Dylan Legge (so., 5-6, 160), Abdu Omar (jr., 6-0, 190), Robinson
Secondary: *Bradyn Finneran (jr., 5-11, 180), *J. Johnson,*McDonald, Barker, Bridges, Lewis Featherstone (sr., 5-10, 140), Hopson-Jones, Nathaniel Sann (jr., 5-8, 135)
Kicker: To be determined
Punter: *J. Johnson
Returners: Barker, Saunders
Long snapper: *Legge
(*Denotes projected starter)