The Independence trademark of smash-mouth, battle-in-the-trenches, grind-it-out football has been around for a while, and more recently, helped the 76ers reach the Division III playoffs and win a City League-South Division championship in 2017.
While Independence must replace first-team all-league and all-district running back Kealin Harden, who rushed for 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns on 163 carries, it welcomes back many returning starters up front.
They will look to open holes for junior Vontez Brice and sophomore Jalin Sample at running back, said coach Maurice Douglas, whose team opens Aug. 30 at Amanda-Clearcreek.
"One of those two guys who we put back there will be cut in the same mold (as Harden)," Douglas said. "They're not really that big, but we've always felt the key to the ground game was up front, and we like the guys we have up there. That's a pretty good unit in terms of bringing people back."
Four of the five returning starters on offense are up front in tight end Shawn Munnerlyn (second-team all-league), senior Treston Clayborn (second-team all-league), senior Marquese Thompson (honorable mention all-league) and junior Adiel Cruz-Zapata.
While Brice has varsity experience, he carried the ball just eight times for 66 yards and three touchdowns as Independence finished 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the City-South behind champion Eastmoor (7-0), Walnut Ridge (6-1) and Marion-Franklin (5-2) and ahead of Columbus South (3-4), Briggs (2-5), Columbus West (1-6) and Africentric (0-7).
"Every year is different with all the new faces, and how they get comfortable with the system," Douglas said. "We were very young a year ago, but the year before that we were City champs."
In that City title season, the 76ers were led by 2018 graduate Demontae Taylor, who rushed for 2,503 yards and 20 touchdowns on 288 carries.
That performance put Taylor's name among Independence's long list of outstanding running backs, including Eric Haw, Ronnie Kuipers, Luther Nicholas, Vincent Rambo and Devin Clodfelter.
Senior Damariyea Williams will be a first-year starter at quarterback behind the 76ers' experienced front, but coaches have seen plenty of potential in his performance during the preseason.
"We think he's pretty good in terms of his poise and how he can direct the offense," Douglas said.
Williams replaces sophomore Markell Holmes, who is no longer with the team after completing 35 of 85 passes for 556 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Munnerlyn returns as the top pass-catcher (16 receptions, 317 yards, five touchdowns) along with junior Orlando Jones (13 catches, 140 yards, two TDs), who also is the backup quarterback.
Other potential targets for Williams include junior Raquan Williams, Brice and sophomore Michael Johnson.
"We're really excited about our receivers," Douglas said. "I know a lot of people think we don't throw it, but we have guys that we can throw to. That's not really an issue."
Independence also returns five starters on defense in Cruz-Zapata, Clayborn and Thompson on the line, Munnerlyn at linebacker and Jones in the secondary.
They will anchor a defense that's expected to be much improved after allowing 187 points in the team's five losses last season, including a 61-16 defeat against Eastmoor and a 42-0 shutout at Johnstown.
"A lot of times, we held our ground, and then there were games where the team gave up a lot of points," Douglas said.
"We're pretty happy with the way they played overall. They're not real experienced, but the guys who are on the field will be more comfortable."
The 76ers will be without last year's top tacklers in 2019 graduates Darantae Ervin (honorable mention all-league and second-team all-district), De'Von Thompson (honorable mention all-league), Darius Littlefield (first-team all-league) and Alex Miller (first-team all-league and special mention all-district).
Jones will handle both the kicking and punting duties for the 76ers, and Munnerlyn will be the long snapper. Brice and Sample are expected to return kicks.
Quarterbacks: *Damariyea Williams (sr., 6-2, 185), Orlando Jones (jr., 6-0, 175)
Running backs: *Vontez Brice (jr., 5-7, 155); Jalin Sample (so., 5-10, 170)
Fullback: *Lonnie Joyner (jr., 5-11, 195)
Tight end: *Shawn Munnerlyn (jr., 6-3, 200)
Receivers: *Brice, *Jones, *Raquan Williams (jr., 5-10, 175), Michael Johnson (so., 6-1, 185)
Linemen: *Zion Brayboy (sr., 6-3, 200), *Treston Clayborn (sr. 6-2, 265), *Adiel Cruz-Zapata (jr. 6-0, 235), *Marquese Thompson (sr., 6-3, 285), Shawn Jones (jr., 5-11, 185), Babucarr Sanneh (jr. 5-11, 215)
Linemen: *Clayborn, *Cruz-Zapata, *Robert Lipscomb (so., 6-3, 285); *Thompson, Joyner, Sanneh
Linebackers: *Brayboy, *Johnson, *Munnerlyn, Andre Smith (jr., 6-1, 195)
Secondary: *Brice, *Jones, *Sample, *Williams, Daniel Collins (so., 5-8, 155), Kevon Jackson (so., 5-8, 155)
Returners: *Brice, Sample
Long snapper: *Munnerlyn