As it prepares for its third season under coach Nate Hillerich, Pickerington North features one of central Ohio's most explosive returning seniors and the nation's No. 1 recruit from the 2020 class.

Hillerich, though, is just as focused on the Panthers' special teams and line play.

Stressing the little things rather than placing a heavy burden on the team's two best athletes, senior Chris Scott and junior Jack Sawyer, has been the team's biggest focus following a difficult ending to last season.

The Panthers opened with four consecutive victories -- three of which came over eventual playoff teams -- but then endured back-to-back heart-wrenching losses, 31-28 to Dublin Coffman and 33-31 to Reynoldsburg.

Losses to Pickerington Central and Lancaster in Weeks 8 and 9 eliminated North from Division I, Region 3 playoff contention even though in Week 10 it beat a fourth team that ultimately made the postseason in Gahanna.

"It's disappointing when in the previous year you see four teams you beat make the playoffs (in Region 2) and that you know if you were in that region you'd be hosting a playoff game, but when you lose four games, you can't make any excuses," Hillerich said. "We were up double digits in three of our losses and Central we lost to by basically a touchdown (16-7), so that's why our special teams have got to be huge for us. It's the details. Every week it's making sure you do the little things right."

After playing seven teams that made the playoffs, an eighth 2018 playoff qualifier, Clayton Northmont, has been added to the schedule.

North again opens against Olentangy Liberty, a state semifinalist each of the past three seasons, on Friday, Aug. 30, on the road.

While Scott has offers from a group of schools that includes Kentucky and Michigan, the Panthers have a quarterback in junior Gio Thomas who is ready to step in and other skill-position returnees in junior running back Idris Lawrence and junior wide receiver Jordan Lowery.

Sawyer is an Ohio State commit who will anchor the defensive line and also figures to be used numerous ways on offense.

"I feel like things are going great," Scott said. "We've got a lot of seniors that played last year, so we've got a lot of leadership and a lot of experience on the team. There's a lot of talent and hopefully we'll put things together."

OFFENSE

Scott is excited to see how the offense, which he calls "even more up-tempo than we were last year" evolves behind Thomas, a transfer from Washington Court House who was a running back during his freshman season at Pickerington Central.

Last season, Thomas completed 114 of 198 passes for 1,887 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions and rushed for 561 yards and nine scores as the Blue Lions went 7-3. He was special mention all-state in Division IV.

According to Hillerich, the Panthers will find out shortly before the opener whether Thomas will be eligible for the entire season or for only the first five games because of the OHSAA transfer rule.

Sawyer served as the No. 2 quarterback last season and could see time at that position along with senior Dom Myers, who was the Panthers' junior varsity quarterback as a sophomore but played mostly defense on varsity last fall.

They'll be tasked with replacing 2019 graduate Mike Lowery, who threw for 2,359 yards and 27 touchdowns and is playing for Mercyhurst.

Scott leads the receiving corps after making 52 catches for 793 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago. Jordan Lowery had 21 receptions, and Lawrence was the team's second-leading rusher with 363 yards and three touchdowns on 77 carries.

Senior Wyatt Stoddard is a returning starter on the offensive line and will be at left tackle, with juniors Zach Addie and D.J. Davenport returning as starters at guard. Senior Josh Sanders is expected to be at right tackle, with senior Trent Robinson and juniors Tyce Neu and Evan Papali all possibilities at center.

DEFENSE

Sawyer was a second-team all-district honoree on the line after finishing with 15 tackles for loss and six sacks and is preparing for his third season as a starter.

Senior Lawson Vaughn, who finished with 7.5 tackles for loss, and senior Trent Robinson are other returnees on the line.

Seniors Cliff Effah and Syncere Harvey will fill roles on the interior of the line.

Senior Colby Baker, who also is expected to see time at running back, is a returning starter at linebacker.

Junior Cole Johnson, a move-in from Groveport, and senior Andrew Pinkins also should play key roles at linebacker.

Scott played mostly on offense and special teams last season but is expected to add starting cornerback to his resume. Junior Devin McShan is the other cornerback after becoming a starter late last season.

Junior Josiah Williams should be at free safety, with Myers and senior Nene Ube at strong safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior Tanner Pope has returned at kicker after making three field goals and all 39 of his extra-point attempts a year ago.

Scott could take over as the punter full time after being the No. 2 punter last season behind Mike Lowery, with Pope likely serving as the backup.

Scott also was the team's top punt returner last season, but he could split that role with Lawrence and McShan.

THE LINEUP

Offense

Quarterbacks: *Gio Thomas (jr., 5-9, 194), Dom Myers (sr., 5-10, 170), Jack Sawyer (jr., 6-5, 235)

Running backs: *Idris Lawrence (jr., 5-10, 174), Colby Baker (sr., 5-9, 195), Andrew Pinkins (sr., 5-9, 201)

Receivers: *Jordan Lowery (jr., 6-3, 175), *Chris Scott (sr., 6-3, 186), Devin McShan (jr., 5-9, 158), Sawyer

Tight end: *Sawyer

Linemen: *Zach Addie (jr., 6-1, 260), *D.J. Davenport (jr., 6-1, 284), *Josh Sanders (sr., 6-3, 235), *Wyatt Stoddard (sr., 6-2, 240), Tyce Neu (jr., 6-0, 260), Evan Papali (jr., 5-9, 184), Trent Robinson (sr., 6-1, 320)

Defense

Linemen: *Robinson, *Sawyer, *Lawson Vaughn (sr., 6-2, 228), Cliff Effah (sr., 5-11, 255), Syncere Harvey (sr., 5-10, 251), Zamen Siyoum (jr., 6-2, 190)

Linebackers: *Baker, *Cole Johnson (jr., 6-2, 209), *Pinkins

Secondary: *McShan, *Myers, *Scott, *Nene Uba (sr., 5-9, 179), *Josiah Williams (sr., 6-0, 178), Hayden Kaltenecker (jr., 6-0, 165)

Special teams

Kicker: *Tanner Pope (jr., 6-3, 164)

Punter: *Scott, Pope

Returners: *Lawrence, *McShan, *Scott

Long snapper: *Sanders

(*Denotes projected starter)

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek