When assessing his team during the preseason, third-year Northland coach Brian Staats has tended to take a wait-and-see approach.

That was true last year when the Vikings had a large senior class that featured eventual Eastern Michigan signee John Branham Jr. as a returning running back, and perhaps even more so this season.

Northland has Branham's brother, senior standout Kalil Branham, to build around but a limited amount of experience in numerous other key spots.

Kalil Branham, who has committed to Kentucky, is moving from quarterback to his natural position of wide receiver, where he started two seasons ago.

The Vikings are coming off an 8-2 finish in which they fell four spots short of the playoffs in Division II, Region 7, but they won their second consecutive City League-North Division championship with a 6-0 record.

How they fare this fall likely will depend on how those surrounding Branham grow into their new roles.

Of the 12 players who earned either first- or second-team all-league honors last season, all but Kalil Branham were lost to graduation.

"We're taking it smooth and trying to better ourselves every day," said senior Rasi Bailey, who was a part-time starter at both safety and wide receiver last season. "It's been productive. We've been working together and getting closer as a team. We just have to put those last pieces together. We have a young team this year."

Northland lost its first two games last season by a total of four points, and it ultimately cost it a playoff berth in a stacked region that included five other teams that went 7-3 or better but also didn't qualify.

The Vikings remain in Region 7, but it has been revamped with a mixture of central Ohio programs and those from the northwest portion of the state rather than the northeast.

Still, Northland's initial focus is on staying in the City-North title race after going a combined 15-5 overall and 11-1 in league play during Staats' first two seasons.

The only playoff appearances in program history came in 2010 and 2013 under former coach Kevin Tooson.

Among those added to the coaching staff is Ryan Terry, a former defensive lineman for Miami University who is defensive coordinator.

"Centennial had the best team in school history last year and has a bunch of that group back," Staats said. "(Columbus) East continues to get better. I'd like to think we can find a way to be in the mix. We've just got to fit the right pieces in the right spots."

OFFENSE

As a sophomore playing mostly at wide receiver, Kalil Branham had 311 yards receiving and scored seven touchdowns.

Last season, he completed 66 of 116 passes for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 295 yards and five scores while adding two receiving touchdowns.

He will be joined at wide receiver by Bailey and sophomore Japhrone Chapman Jr., who was honorable mention all-league last season.

Sophomore Isaiah Jackson, who was the backup quarterback last season, is expected to take over that role full time with freshman Michael Robinson also an option.

"We're putting Kalil back at his natural position," Staats said. "I think we developed a guy that can get him the ball. Last year, I wasn't sure who could get him the ball."

Senior Dayzon Busby is the leading candidate to get carries after John Branham rushed for 1,196 yards on 155 attempts, had 12 receptions for 160 yards and scored 22 touchdowns.

Senior Isahman Ford, who should be at left tackle, and sophomore Josiah Ellis return on the line after making honorable mention all-league. Sophomore Corey Craddolph also was a contributor up front. Seniors Darius Boyd and Emmanuel Tagoe and juniors Jaylen Broadus and Victor Jeter are others who should rotate on the line.

DEFENSE

Ford is the top returnee on defense and again should line up at nose tackle, with Jeter also as an interior lineman and Craddolph and Tagoe at end.

Busby and sophomores Aven Garrett and Rayvon Ivery should lead the linebacking corps, but none started last season.

Bailey and Chapman are expected to be at safety, with senior Naseer Broadnax at one cornerback spot. Senior Antonio Woods and juniors Franklin Hines and Shemar Watson also could see time at cornerback.

The defense's biggest losses to graduation were lineman Jordan McCall (4.5 sacks) and Mark Lee, Brian Dean and Jesse Prewitt III in the secondary. Lee also is playing for Eastern Michigan.

Northland allowed just 28 points in league action last season.

"(The defensive linemen) are going to have to do a good job of protecting the linebackers and making plays," Staats said.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Senior Kyle Dumashie is expected to perform both kicking and punting duties after the Vikings lost Isaiah Golden to graduation.

Kalil Branham has been among the returners in past years and again should be among the options in that role along with junior Shemar Watson and Chapman.

THE LINEUP

Offense

Quarterbacks: *Isaiah Jackson (so., 150), Kalil Branham (sr., 6-1, 205), Michael Robinson (fr., 5-8, 140)

Running backs: *Dayzon Busby (sr., 5-8, 155), Aven Garrett (so., 5-8, 160), Rayvon Ivery (so., 5-9, 180)

Receivers: *Rasi Bailey (sr., 6-2, 180), *Branham, Japhrone Chapman Jr. (jr., 5-9, 165), Shemar Watson (jr., 5-10, 150)

H-back: *Ama Akatobi (sr., 5-10, 190), Ivery

Linemen: *Darius Boyd (sr., 5-9, 290), *Corey Craddolph (so., 5-9, 210), *Josiah Ellis (sr., 5-10, 250), *Isahman Ford (sr., 6-3, 320), Jaylen Broadus (jr., 5-10, 235), Victor Jeter (jr., 6-6, 320), Emmanuel Tagoe (sr., 5-10, 230)

Defense

Linemen: *Craddolph, *Ford, *Jeter, *Tagoe, Boyd, Broadus, Ellis

Linebackers: *Busby, *Garrett, *Ivery

Secondary: *Bailey, *Naseer Broadnax (sr., 5-8, 135), *Chapman, Franklin Hines (jr., 6-0, 165), Watson, Antonio Woods (sr., 5-10, 150)

Special teams

Kicker: *Kyle Dumashie (sr., 5-11, 140)

Punter: *Dumashie

Returners: *Branham,*Chapman, Watson

Long snapper: *Watson

(*Denotes projected starter)

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek