Coming off a season in which his team won a playoff game for the first time since 2003, Whitehall-Yearling coach Rod Lightfoot believes the Rams might not miss a beat this fall despite losing several key players to graduation.
Whitehall beat Dover 38-31 in the first round of the Division II, Region 7 playoffs before losing 35-17 to eventual state runner-up Massillon Washington to finish 10-2 overall.
The Rams, who are seeking their fourth consecutive postseason berth, have moved to Region 8.
"It's reload," said Lightfoot, who is in his fifth season. "Skill-wise, I think we're better this year than we were last year. They've all elevated their game. They have another year of experience behind them."
The Rams should get an early gauge of their progress when they open Aug. 30 at Westerville Central, a Division I program.
Whitehall lost to the Warhawks 19-6 in last season's opener before winning 10 consecutive games.
The Rams begin defense of their MSL-Ohio Division title when they visit Columbus Academy on Sept. 20. They went 5-0 in the league last season to finish ahead of runner-up London (4-1), which has moved to Central Buckeye Conference.
Buckeye Valley and Harvest Prep have joined the MSL-Ohio.
"These guys will make sure this team is motivated to defend that championship," Lightfoot said. "They're not going to back down. Buckeye Valley coming into our league is going to enhance it. (Harvest Prep coach) Milan (Smith) is always going to have a strong team regardless of what league he's in."
Whitehall's home opener on its new synthetic turf field is Sept. 13 against Dublin Scioto.
The biggest loss to graduation was quarterback Raymell Byrd, who is playing at Ashland after rushing for 1,784 yards and 26 touchdowns on 241 carries and completing 69 of 148 passes for 1,109 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. He earned district Offensive Player of the Year honors, shared league Back of the Year honors and also was first-team all-state and ThisWeek Super 25 captain.
Keon Freeman (WR/LB) and Ryan Redifer (OL/DL) were first-team all-state, all-district and all-league. Freeman is playing at the University of Charleston in West Virginia and Redifer is playing at Ohio Wesleyan.
"We graduated a heck of a class this past spring, but our success doesn't happen last year without this (2020) class that's behind them," Lightfoot said. "There's probably at least eight or nine of these seniors that were starters last year on both sides of the ball. They're pretty anxious to see what they can do. I'm pretty excited on what they can bring to the table and I know they are."
Senior Ni'Kai Cameron is expected to replace Byrd at quarterback. He was honorable mention all-league last season.
Senior Melvin Tinsley, who was first-team all-district and all-league and third-team all-state at defensive back, should be a featured tailback.
Senior Juvaun Blackshear, who was honorable mention all-league, is another key running back.
"I'm ready for the season," Blackshear said. "I'm ready for everybody to come together and be a team. We have to define some leaders to show everybody the right way to play. Everybody has to be disciplined and play the game the right way. If we play as a team, it will be a record-breaking season."
Senior Charles Miller will see action at running back and receiver.
Other key receivers are seniors Christian Gordon, Drevon Pickney, John Stuckey and LaVon Williams.
Gordon had 36 receptions for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and was second-team all-league and special mention all-district. Williams was honorable mention all-league.
"Christian is one of those players that can make a play on a dime and he can get this team moving in the right direction in just one single play," Lightfoot said. "He's pretty electric in that sense."
Whitehall also was hit hard by graduation on the line, as senior guard Stephuan Ellis is the only returning starter. He was second-team all-league last season.
"I was always ready to show what I did last year and make it better this year," Ellis said. "The kids this year can get better. I want to give some of my talent to the others as I move on and they move up."
Other linemen looking to contribute include seniors Bradley Buchert, Kha'Dafi Charles, MeeRaa Dhinaa and James Lehew and junior Aurie Satterwhite.
"Our weakness this year is going to be our offensive line," Lightfoot said. "We graduated four of the five starters. In terms of Friday night experience, we only have (Ellis) who has that."
With numerous voids to fill, several players could see action on both sides of the ball.
Ellis should see time at nose guard.
"We have to work as a team," he said. "If there is a weak link everything can break, so everybody has to work together. If everybody participates and gives 100 percent then we're going to be good."
Satterwhite and juniors Termir Allen and Daleon Jackson are other key linemen.
Stuckey also should contribute at linebacker, along with junior David Winegarner and sophomore Tyrese Taylor.
Blackshear, Cameron, Gordon, Miller, Tinsley and Williams could see double duty in the secondary.
With the graduation of Jose Carachure and Max McQuate, who shared kicking duties last season, Lightfoot used the preseason to find replacements. Both were soccer players.
Seniors Jared Alvarez and Jose Vinas, both of whom also play soccer, competed for kicking duties in the preseason.
Gordon is the punter and a top return threat along with Tinsley.
Buchert is the long snapper.
Quarterback: *Ni'Kai Cameron (sr., 6-2, 195)
Running backs: *Melvin Tinley (sr., 5-11, 175), Juvaun Blackshear (sr., 5-9, 180), Charles Miller (sr., 5-9, 149)
Receivers: *Christian Gordon (sr., 5-7, 150), *LaVon Williams (sr., 6-0, 150), Miller, Drevon Pickney (sr., 5-11, 162), John Stuckey (sr., 5-9, 180)
Linemen: *Stephuan Ellis (sr., 6-0, 255), Bradley Buchert (sr., 6-0, 210), Kha'Dafi Charles (sr., 6-1, 300), MeeRaa Dhinaa (sr., 5-10, 155), James Lehew (sr., 6-0, 240), Aurie Satterwhite (jr., 6-4, 310)
Linemen: *Termir Allen (jr., 6-2, 190), *Daleon Jackson (jr., 6-2, 205), Ellis, Satterwhite
Linebackers: *Stuckey, *Tyrese Taylor (so., 5-11, 160), *David Winegarner, (jr., 6-1, 195)
Secondary: *Blackshear, *Gordon, *Tinsley, Cameron, Miller, Andrew Price (so., 6-0. 175), Williams
Kickers: Jared Alvarez (sr., 5-11, 140), Jose Vinas (sr., 5-8, 140)
Returners: Gordon, Tinsley
Long snapper: *Buchert
(*Denotes projected starter)