As Brent Morrison begins his second season as coach of Westerville Central, he hopes to lead the Warhawks to another postseason appearance.
Central lost several key players to graduation, but Morrison believes a strong returning nucleus will help his team achieve its goals.
The Warhawks lost five of their final seven regular-season games a year ago, but still qualified as the seventh seed for the Division I, Region 2 playoffs, where they lost 27-10 to second-seeded Dublin Coffman. Central has moved to Region 3 with the latest reshuffling by the OHSAA.
The Warhawks had missed the playoffs the previous two seasons, finishing with identical 4-6 records.
"Potential-wise, this is probably one of the best teams to come through here," Morrison said. "It's just going to be a matter of how they play when it comes to gametime."
The Warhawks begin their quest for a return trip to the postseason when they play host to Whitehall on Aug. 30. Central defeated the Rams 19-6 in the opener last season en route to a 3-0 start.
One key player lost to graduation was defensive end Dontay Hunter II, who had 84 tackles and six sacks and was first-team all-district and all-OCC-Buckeye Division and second-team all-state.
Also gone is quarterback LaBronz Davis II, who finished 89-for-210 for 1,617 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. He is a freshman at Bowling Green.
At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, junior Judah Holtzclaw will replace Davis at quarterback.
"I like the work ethic," Holtzclaw said. "Everyone knows what we want and we know what we can reach if we work on it enough."
Central lost a key player on special teams with the graduation of kicker and punter Jacob Borcila, who was first-team all-league and second-team all-district and is a freshman kicker at Kansas.
Central went 2-3 in the OCC-Buckeye to finish fourth as Olentangy, Olentangy Liberty and Olentangy Orange shared the league title at 4-1.
The Warhawks open league play Oct. 4 against visiting Liberty.
"Our OCC is brutal," Morrison said. "We have some tough non-league games between Pick North, Gahanna. Our region is probably one of the best in the state."
Morrison, who had been an assistant in the program since 2005, replaced John Magistro. After nine seasons at Central, Magistro was an assistant at Olentangy last season and has joined the Worthington Kilbourne staff this year.
The Warhawks will again utilize a spread offense, with some slight adjustments to take advantage of its size at fullback.
"It's still a lot of spread," Morrison said. "We have some larger body fullbacks, so we'll do some more I-back and under-center stuff than we have in the past."
Morrison has been impressed with Holtzclaw's offseason after backing up Davis a year ago.
"Judah is stepping in at quarterback, doing a great job," Morrison said. "He went to a lot of camps, a lot of traveling, getting his name out there and getting some good exposure."
The backfield will feature Rickey Hyatt Jr. at tailback and Zeke Healy at fullback. Both are seniors.
Hyatt, who converted from wide receiver to running back late last season, rushed for a team-high 470 yards and five touchdowns on 53 carries.
A key receiver is junior Luke Swaney, who led the team in receiving with 20 catches for 430 yards and six touchdowns.
Also back are senior Myles Williamson, a Bowling Green recruit who had 20 receptions for 201 yards and added three rushing touchdowns, and senior Kylin Byrd.
"Most of our receiving group is back," Morrison said.
Senior Jace Jarvis and junior Owen Franks will split time at tight end.
Senior J.J. Johnson, a returning starter, will help anchor the offensive line at right tackle.
"The goal is to get a ring," Johnson said, referring to competing for a state title. "That's the ultimate goal. Of course, we're planning on going to the playoffs. We're pretty stacked in talent from defense to offense to special teams."
Joining Johnson up front will be juniors Will Jados (left tackle), Brandon Kennedy (left guard) and Jordan Henley (right guard), with senior Bryce Hill and junior Mason Toomey competing to start at center.
Morrison has been impressed with the defense in the preseason.
"Defensively, we're still sticking with a 3-3," he said. "We lost some, but pretty much the core of our defense is back. These guys either started or rotated in for us."
Healy led the Warhawks in tackles (113) and sacks (eight) at middle linebacker and was first-team all-league and second-team all-district.
Junior Vince Francescone, another returning starter, will play outside linebacker.
Hyatt, a safety, had 94 tackles and three interceptions and was second-team all-district and all-league.
Jarvis will play safety and Williamson will split time at cornerback and safety. Both are returning starters. Xavier Cannaday, a transfer from Westerville South, will play cornerback, and Byrd will also see time in the secondary.
Senior Darius Madison is back at defensive end after making first-team all-league, while Johnson and Toomey will share time at nose guard and Henley and senior Donovan Lewis also will be in the mix up front.
Morrison has used the preseason to find a replacement for Borcila, who also played goalkeeper for the boys soccer team.
Junior Chase Giammarco and sophomore Jason Robertson are competing at kicker, and Hyatt and Robertson shared punting duties in the preseason.
Hartley, Hyatt and Williamson are top return threats, while Francescone and junior Sam Riccobono are long snappers.
Quarterback: *Judah Holtzclaw (jr., 6-6, 220)
Running backs: *Zeke Healy (jr., 5-10, 200), *Rickey Hyatt Jr. (sr., 6-1, 182)
Receivers: *Luke Swaney (jr., 6-4, 195), *Myles Williamson (sr., 5-10, 170), Kylin Byrd (jr., 6-0, 160), M.J. Davis (jr., 6-2, 170), Stephen Hartley Jr. (jr., 5-6, 160), Thomas Humphries (sr., 6-2, 175)
Tight ends: Owen Franks (jr., 6-1, 180), Jace Jarvis (sr., 6-3, 195)
Linemen: *Jordan Henley (jr., 6-0, 270), *Will Jados (jr., 6-7, 285), *J.J. Johnson (sr., 6-4, 300), *Brandon Kennedy (jr., 6-6, 275), Bryce Hill (sr., 6-0, 255), Mason Toomey (sr., 6-2, 235)
Linemen: *Darius Madison (sr., 6-0, 220), Johnson, Henley, Donovan Lewis (sr. 6-1, 230), Toomey
Linebackers: *Vince Francescone (jr., 6-0, 170), *Healy, Xavier Cannaday (sr., 6-1, 180), Jimmy Glaser, (jr., 5-10, 185), Logan Moore (jr., 5-11, 185), C.J. Spinosi (jr., 6-1, 193)
Secondary: *Hyatt, *Williamson, Byrd, Jarvis
Kickers: Chase Giammarco (jr., 6-1, 160), Jason Robertson (so., 5-10, 180)
Punter: *Hyatt, Robertson
Returners: Hartley, Hyatt, Williamson
Long snappers: Francescone, Sam Riccobono (jr., 5-11, 145)
(*Denotes projected starter)