High school football will certainly have a different look and feel this fall.
So will Big Walnut, which will open the season under the guidance of new head coach Rob Page.
Page takes over for Joe Weaver, who coached the Golden Eagles for 11 seasons after serving as an assistant for nine, three as the defensive coordinator.
Defense was Weaver’s thing … and his teams reflected that.
Page, though, has focused on the other side of the ball in recent stops. His last before coming to Sunbury was Turpin High School, where he served as offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach … and did so successfully.
Turpin led the Eastern Cincinnati Conference in scoring, rushing and passing for the first time in school history last fall.
He’s been a head coach before, too, most recently at Reading High School, where he led the program to its first playoff win since 2006 and was named Cincinnati Enquirer Division V Coach of the Year in 2017.
He knows how to move the ball — and get it into the end zone — and likes his chances of replicating past success at Big Walnut given the pieces he’s inherited.
The key cog in the Eagle offense is senior quarterback Jagger Barnett, who accounted for 1,479 yards of total offense and 10 touchdowns last season.
Senior running back Caden Williams also returns, and senior tackle Cole Wecker will anchor the line.
“Jagger is a multi-year starter at QB who has a strong command of the offense and has been extremely accurate in pre-season,” Page said. “Caden had a great offseason, is pound for pound the strongest guy on our team, has a super-high motor and is a great leader and Cole has had a great camp.”
Big Walnut also returns a key group of senior leaders on defense … guys like linebacker A.J. Leisure, safety Brady Hershberger, tackle Mahlon Spangler and linebacker Gordon Rond.
“A.J. is one of our most physical players and is a natural linebacker who can cover a lot of ground,” Page said. “Brady is a great centerfield player who can cover a lot of ground as a high safety. He’s also willing to get down hill and hit you. Mahlon is a very strong and physical three-technique defensive tackle who has a great get off and plays extremely hard and Gordon has very high football IQ and constantly does things the right way … he’s a great team leader.”
All the seniors ares solid leaders, Page said, which is one of the Eagles’ main strengths.
“Our seniors are hungry to be successful and are showing strong leadership,” he said. “Implementing a new system and culture will always have growing pains. That being said, our guys have embraced change and want to get better.”
Other potential starters Page said could make an immediate impact this fall include senior tackle Mark Ruffing, junior guard Grant Farris, junior lineman Aiden Hernandez, sophomore athlete Grant Coulston, junior defensive back Lane Pritchard, senior defensive lineman Gage Sutton, senior defensive backs John and Justin Embaugh and senior outside linebacker Matt Fry.
Big Walnut will compete in a realigned OCC-Capital Division this fall. It opens Aug. 28 against visiting Delaware Hayes before traveling to Westerville South and Franklin Heights. The Eagles will return home to play Worthington Kilbourne Sept. 18 before wrapping up their abbreviated regular season against host Westerville North and Dublin Scioto.
“Our league will be made up of mainly Division II teams,” Page said. “It will be a strong league with some major D-I talent. We are excited to get the opportunity to compete.”
BW will have to navigate around another opponent this fall as well: COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has probably affected us in a similar way to most schools in terms of limiting strength and conditioning, but (head strength and conditioning) Coach (Ethan) Wetzel did an amazing job putting together a plan and made the most of a tough situation,” Page said. “Due to the time off and kids not being in the weight room, we think staying healthy and continuing to get stronger will be a key to success this season … even bigger than previous seasons.
“As for practices, we are a no-huddle outfit regardless of COVID, so our communication system will not be affected by this situation. Our practices have been spaced out and we relentlessly coach keeping our distance when not being involved in the drill, it’s different for our kids, but they know it’s what has to be done to operate and have embraced it.
“We preach to them the necessity of controling the controlables and focusing on daily improvement. Overall, they have embraced it and we’ve had a strong summer.”