With seven starters back on offense and eight on defense, third-year Heath coach Tim Ward is upbeat about the Bulldogs' chances of improving on last season when they finished 4-6 overall and 2-2 in the Licking County League-Cardinal Division.
"We've got 13 seniors and 12 are returning from last year and 10 have been in the program for four years," Ward said. "We couldn't be more excited with our experience and with the leadership of the senior class.
"We have extremely high expectations. We think we're going to be pretty good. But who knows whether that will translate into a lot of wins, given our league and non-league schedule. However, we feel real good about the guys coming back. We don't have the depth we want, so we'll need to avoid injuries."
That lack of depth will force more than a handful of players to play on both sides of the ball, so the Bulldogs are continuing to try to develop some younger players quickly.
"We'll have seven or eight guys who definitely will see the field on both sides of the ball every game, but that could go up to 10 or 11 guys depending on how things go," said Ward, whose team opens Aug. 30 at Liberty Union. "That doesn't necessarily mean they'll play every snap on both sides of the ball, but those seven to 11 guys could see significant time on both sides.
"If we have to, we can work some guys in with rotations. We want to be sure we're giving them a chance to play at a high level in the fourth quarter."
The rotations will be especially evident in the backfield, where tailbacks Dane Hogue, Chance Keller and Xavier Puryear will share touches in Heath's multiple sets, spread-attack approach.
"Any one of them can be 1,000-yard backs if they took a lot of carries," Ward said. "If we ran our old-school offense, a couple of them would have the ability to be 1,500-yard guys. But all three are also starters on defense. When you play our schedule and face teams with size, depth and physicality like we do, it's silly to think we can work a guy for 1,000 or 1,500 yards if he also plays inside linebacker."
Senior Austin Morrow is a third-year starter at quarterback. Morrow, who also plays free safety on defense, and Hogue, who is a middle linebacker, both were first-team all-league last season.
"Austin is a great player and leader," Ward said. "What we love about him is his consistency. If we tell him to correct something, it's going to be corrected and he won't go back and make that mistake again. We know we'll get his absolute best and he's battle-tested. He'll also be a third-year starter in basketball and a fourth-year starter in baseball."
Seniors Bryce Baker and Justin Hartman are returning starters at receiver and will be joined by classmate Nolan McClain and junior Hayden Wiley.
Returning up front are junior tackles Caden Marinacci and J.T. Lowe and junior guard Hunter Simmons. Junior Reece Duncan will be at center, with senior Kanyon McKee and sophomore Curtis Bailey competing for the last spot at guard.
"If we stay healthy and we execute, we should be a beast on offense," Morrow said. "We had quite a few guys injured on the O-line last year, so we worked a lot of guys in and that should help us this year."
Hogue, a junior and third-year starter, returns in the middle of the linebacker corps, flanked by classmates Puryear and Hunter Postelwaite in the Bulldogs' 3-3 stack defense.
Up front will be senior Cortez Hatem and sophomores Gavin Postelwaite and Ashton Snedeker.
"I think we have a chance to be the best front-six we've had in a long time," Hogue said. "We're going to have a lot of guys playing both ways, so we have to be conditioned to do that. In the past, I haven't wanted to play both ways, but this year I definitely want to do it. I'm ready to take it on."
The Postelwaite brothers are first-year starters, as is sophomore cornerback Payton Lees.
Keller will be at the other corner, with Bonham and Hartman at outside linebacker and Morrow in the back.
"We think we're going to be much stronger defensively because we don't have many new bodies," Ward said. "With Dane and Austin on defense, we definitely have a lot of leadership, although neither is real vocal. Chance is another lead-by-example guy. He doesn't say two words on the football field, but continues to do the right thing and be in the right spots every time we watch film.
"Up front, we've got three guys with big bodies and motors in Cortez (6-1, 250), Ashton (6-2, 320) and Gavin Postelwaite (6-1, 210)."
Senior Collin Dupps, a Watkins Memorial transfer, will handle the kicking and punting for the first five games before being forced to sit out under OHSAA rules.
"Collin is an excellent kicker with a great leg," Ward said. "He's also become a kicking coach and teaching Cole Barrick the ins and outs of kicking. He has taken Cole under his wing and been a good kicking coach.
"Collin is also our only true punter. We've got guys who can punt, but aren't necessarily true punters. We've got to find someone to punt consistently when Collin leaves, so we're also working on that."
Quarterbacks: *Austin Morrow (sr., 5-10, 165), Hayden Wiley (jr., 5-8, 145)
Running backs: *Dane Hogue (jr., 6-0, 190), Cortez Hatem (sr., 6-1, 250), Chance Keller (sr., 5-6, 150), Xavier Puryear (jr., 6-1, 185)
Receivers: *Bryce Baker (sr., 6-1, 185), *Justin Hartman (sr. 5-9, 160), *Nolan McClain (sr., 6-2, 170), *Wiley, Reid Bonham (sr., 5-10, 160), Collin Dupps (sr., 5-10, 200), Hogue, Keylan Williams (so., 6-4, 210)
Linemen: *Reece Duncan (jr., 5-7, 200), *J.T. Lowe (jr., 6-1, 230), *Caden Marinacci (jr., 6-2, 240), *Hunter Simmons (jr., 6-1, 250), Curtis Bailey (so., 5-11, 210), Gavin Kaiser (jr., 5-11, 150), Riley Mathis (jr., 5-10, 175), Kanyon McKee (sr., 6-2, 185), Aidan Scott (jr., 6-0, 200), Ashton Snedeker (so., 6-2, 320)
Linemen: *Hatem, *Gavin Postelwaite (so., 6-1, 210), *Snedeker, Jacob Byers (sr., 5-10, 175), Trenton Lamp (jr., 5-8, 225), McKee
Linebackers: *Hogue, *Puryear, *Hunter Postelwaite (jr., 6-2, 175), Sinessa Byrnes (sr., 5-3, 155), Konnor Goodin (sr., 5-8, 190), Kaiser
Secondary: *Bonham, *Hartman, *Payton Lees (so., 5-11, 175), *Keller, *Morrow, Baker, Marcus Clayton (sr., 5-8, 155), McClain, Isaiah Spellman (jr., 5-10, 150)
Kickers: *Dupps, Cole Barrick (jr., 6-0, 140)
Punters: *Dupps, Dorrian Bolen (jr., 6-0, 175)
Long snappers: *McClain, Bailey
Returners: Hartman, Keller, McClain, Morrow, Wiley
(*Denotes projected starter)