Every preseason brings its own questions, but New Albany coach Bubba Kidwell embraced the challenges this month as the Eagles plot out their path to recapturing the OCC-Capital Division championship and returning to the playoffs.
"We don't have the big Division I recruits. We have a lot of guys who can play Division II or Division III football at the next level," said Kidwell, whose second season begins Aug. 30 at home against Westerville South. "We have a lot of competition amongst our kids. In the past, we've had the kids who will clearly be starters. Now we have a bunch of very good football players who are competing. We have a number of positions where several kids will play."
Thirteen starters -- seven on defense and six on offense -- return from a team that went 7-3 overall and 4-1 in the league, second behind Canal Winchester (5-0). Those losses came by a combined six points and were enough to keep the Eagles out of the playoffs, as they finished 13th in Division II, Region 7 with 20.15 points, five spots shy of the postseason.
New Albany returns its entire secondary, led by seniors Brock Kidwell (safety) Kingston Mabatah (cornerback), Trevor Upp (cornerback) and Dom Zappitelli (safety), as well as senior running back Reed Hall, senior tight end Patrick Gurd and a handful of linemen. The Eagles lost their starting quarterback, top two running backs and all of their starting defensive linemen to graduation.
"We lost a lot, so we have to build," senior running back/linebacker Luke Dovell said. "The younger guys have done a great job and the core group of seniors have done well getting us to this point."
New Albany begins OCC-Capital play Oct. 4 at Canal Winchester.
If the Eagles are to return to the playoffs, it will be in Division I, Region 3. With a football adjusted enrollment of 609, New Albany is the second-smallest school in Division I, ahead of only Toledo Bowsher (592).
"We're constantly preaching (about) taking care of the little things because the little things kept us out of the playoffs last year. They kept us from winning the OCC (-Capital) title," said Kidwell, whose team started 3-3 and won its last four games after a 30-28 loss to Canal Winchester.
"Our goals have stayed the same. For us, (last year), we'd have had a home playoff game in Region 3. Division II is very difficult and I think our schedule prepares us for Division I play. But our goals are still the same: go 1-0 every week, win the league and get to Week 11 and see what happens."
Coach Kidwell has high praise for junior Brock Tibbitts, who takes over as the starting quarterback for 2019 graduate Luke Muter.
Muter completed 55 of 102 passes for 763 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed for 242 yards and two scores on 44 carries.
"Brock probably has the best arm of any quarterback we've had here," coach Kidwell said. "Everybody sees how well he throws the ball, but what people don't see is how he takes control of the huddle and what a leader he is. He's a calm kid. When coaches get upset with somebody, he always has a level head. That's what I like most about him."
Hall was the Eagles' third-leading running back last year, with 53 carries for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He is expected to lead a deep backfield that also includes Dovell at fullback, Mabatah as a halfback and junior halfback Jaden Fudge.
Brody Kidwell, Zappittell and junior Tyler Van Meter are wingbacks.
Kidwell caught eight passes for 131 yards and four touchdowns in 2018.
"We're very versatile, especially being able to go to the split side," Brody Kidwell said. "We have three or four backs who can go into the game any time and go either way."
Gurd caught eight passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, but he anticipates an increased blocking role in order to help an offensive line that returns just two starters in senior center Tim Marshall and junior guard Kevin Spelman.
"I have to step up a lot this year because we lost a lot of offensive linemen, which is a big deal," Gurd said.
Brody Kidwell will lead the backfield in his third season as a starter, but coaches anticipate that the linebacking unit might be the heart of the defense. Dovell will play strong-side linebacker, flanked by versatile junior Ian Hoff in the middle, junior Kole Klay on the weak side and Gurd on the outside in a role known in the program as "bandit," in which he plays 3 yards off the line.
"My job is to force everything back inside," Gurd said.
"The linebackers are the core group of our defense. It's an athletic position," Dovell said. "You will take on blocks and you've got to be versatile. We're young. We have two juniors projected to start and the two of us (he and Gurd) as seniors but the juniors are doing a great job. They're picking up everything."
The defensive line has to replace the 6.5 sacks and leadership lost to graduation with end Will King, who now plays at Akron. Senior Jackson Buss, junior Braedon Elwer and Spelman will play the ends, with Marshall and junior Brandon Jefferson splitting time at nose guard.
"We have eight or nine kids who can play the front three and they're very athletic," coach Kidwell said. "In the past, it seems like we've been more short and stocky. This year, we have athletic kids who are 6-(foot-) 2, 6-3 and 6-4."
Hoff will take over as kicker, with Tibbitts as the likely starting punter.
Special teams were hit hard by graduation, as the Eagles lost kicker Grant Rogers -- who made 31 of 38 extra points and five of six field goals -- and punter Michael O'Shaughnessy, who averaged 37.2 yards per kick.
O'Shaughnessy signed with Ohio State and Rodgers with John Carroll.
Quarterback: *Brock Tibbitts (jr., 6-3, 180)
Running backs: *Luke Dovell (sr., 6-0, 190), *Reed Hall (sr., 5-10, 165), *Brody Kidwell (sr., 6-1, 200), Kingston Mabatah (sr., 5-10, 170), Jayden Fudge (jr., 5-7, 145), Mechi McCaulley (jr., 5-8, 150), Tyler Van Meter (jr., 6-0, 190), Dominic Zappitelli (sr., 5-11, 165)
Receivers: *Charlie Pine (sr., 6-1, 175), *Owen Wilcox (jr., 6-4, 180), Zach Alleman (jr., 5-10, 175), A.C. Clouse (jr., 6-0, 175)
Tight ends: *Patrick Gurd (sr., 6-4, 215), Peyton Henze (jr., 6-3, 180), Ian Hoff (jr., 6-2, 185), Ben Stall (jr., 6-3, 185)
Linemen: *Braedon Elwer