Utica has only five seniors on its roster, but second-year coach Charlie Rowley said his squad has talented young players who can help bridge any possible gap in leadership.
The Redskins finished 2-8 overall and 0-4 in the LCL-Cardinal Division last season, but they had numerous young players gain significant varsity time.
"We lost a good group of 13 seniors, so we have some big shoes to fill," said Rowley, whose team opens Aug. 30 at Centerburg. "We don't have many (seniors), but I like what they are doing. They are taking ownership of the team. They are buying into what we are doing. They are leading the way.
"Our junior class is really big, and we played a lot of the kids as sophomores last year. We don't have a ton of seniors, but we do have a lot of experience."
Rowley said the Redskins will go as their offensive line goes because of three returning starters in senior tackle Blake Hale, junior center Josh Dillon and junior guard Tanner Parsons.
"We put a lot of weight on those guys up front," Rowley said. "I told our offensive line as a position group that we will go as they go. They are the heartbeat of our team. Those three guys provide a lot of stability up front."
Hale said last year's seniors had a big impact on him on and off the field.
"We had a great group of seniors last year and I learned a lot from them," Hale said. "They taught us how to play a big role in terms of leadership and that will help me out this year."
Senior Ethan Adams returns as a starter at wide receiver and in the secondary.
"The other guys have to step it up," he said. "We have a large junior class and they need to help the seniors with the leadership."
Utica has lost 12 consecutive LCL-Cardinal contests, with its last victory coming in Week 10 of the 2015 season, 57-16 over Northridge. The Redskins open league play Oct. 4 at home against Newark Catholic.
Rowley said the Redskins need to be accountable to one another.
"Our mantra this season is 'Hold the Rope,'" he said. "It's about being a good teammate and not letting go of the rope. It's about holding everyone accountable and holding yourself accountable to the team and doing what's needed. It's about keeping the guys on the rope.
"Overall as a whole, they are buying in and playing for each other. They are buying into what we want as a program. It's our second season together, so they know the expectations and know what they need to do. They are raising expectations and they're willing to meet them."
Adams said "hold the rope" is about camaraderie.
"If someone falls down, you help them up," Adams said. "No one falls off the train. You stay in this together. We have to come together and play together as a team."
The Redskins return six starters on offense, including Dillon, Hale and Parsons on the line.
The other returning starters are Adams at wide receiver, junior Clayton Cummons at tight end and junior Collin McCullough at quarterback. McCullough was 75-for-163 passing for 1,014 yards, four touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season.
"Collin started 10 games last year and still is only a junior," Rowley said. "I look for him to take big steps on the field and leadership-wise.
"We're going to put more on him this year in the huddle in terms of running the offense. I know he has high expectations of himself, which is good for me to see."
Last season, Adams caught 11 passes for 252 yards and one touchdown and Cummons had 11 receptions for 230 yards and one score.
The Redskins' stable of running backs includes juniors Valyn Dague, Brier Harris and Shane Weakley.
"We lost a lot (offensively) to graduation," Adams said. "A lot of the linemen came back, so we have some big, strong players. We have younger skill players who have come in to help us out."
Rowley said the offense was much-improved during the preseason.
"It's the second year of our system and guys know the system and understand what we want," he said. "We're ahead of where we were last year in terms of install and terminology. We still have a ways to go fundamental-wise, but I'm happy with the progress."
Utica returns six starters on its 4-2-5 base defense, including three linemen in Dillon, Hale and Parsons.
Cummons is back at linebacker and Adams and senior Nick Martinsen have returned in the secondary.
"We told guys, especially on defense, that we're going to find guys who will fly around and hunt the football," Rowley said. "We want guys around the ball. If you do that, you'll find your way on the field."
Parsons is the top returning tackler, having recorded 38 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack last season. Adams had 32 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, Martinsen had 23 tackles, one tackle for loss and one sack and Cummons had 23 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack.
"We need to fill in spots and work on our depth," Rowley said. "We're not going to get through the year injury-free. That's not going to happen.
"If you're not starting, everyone on the roster is one play away from being in there. We're going to have to have that next man-up mentality and be ready to fill in when needed."
Quarterbacks: *Collin McCullough (jr., 5-10, 170), Logan Brokaw (jr., 5-10, 135), Zach Heckman (fr., 5-9, 125)
Running backs: Valyn Dague (jr., 6-0, 205), Brier Harris (jr., 5-9, 165), Caleb Lybarger (sr., 6-0, 200), Shane Weakley (jr., 6-0, 165)
Receivers: *Ethan Adams (sr., 5-7, 140), Brokaw, Seth Cooper (so., 6-1, 175), Brant Gray (sr., 5-8, 150)
Tight ends: *Clayton Cummons (sr., 6-0, 195), Jacob Borem (jr., 6-3, 210)
Linemen: *Josh Dillon (jr., 6-0, 185), *Blake Hale (sr., 6-4, 250), *Tanner Parsons (jr., 6-3, 245), Borem, Chandler Hartman (jr., 5-11, 210), Andrew Norrocky (jr., 5-11, 185)
Linemen: *Dillon, *Hale, *Parsons, Jack Alexander (jr., 5-8, 160), Tanner Tate (jr., 6-1, 350), Gavin Weaver (so., 5-11, 165)
Linebackers: *Cummons, *Weakley, Dague, Harris, Hartman
Secondary: *Adams, *Nick Martinsen (sr., 5-10, 140), Brokaw, Cooper, Kai Humphrey (jr., 5-10, 145), Brock Wygle (so., 5-8, 125)
Punters: Brokaw, Hale
Returners: Adams, Cooper, Gray, Harris
Long snappers: Hale, Harris, Parsons
(*Denotes projected starter)