The times are a-changin’ for the Olentangy Orange football team, and it’s not just the Ohio Capital Conference realignment. The Pioneers lost a lot of production off of last year’s squad, both on offense and defense.
That doesn’t mean the cupboard’s empty, though. Just the opposite, in fact, as Pioneers head coach Zebb Schroeder said the program is in better shape than it has ever been — especially when it comes to bodies.
“We’re not going to have a lot of guys that are going both ways for the first time ever,” Schroeder said. “For the first time ever, there’s a backup at every position — across the board we’ve got pretty good competition. But, our depth up front is still not where it needs to be.”
The Pioneers join Olentangy and Olentangy Liberty in the new Buckeye Division of the Ohio Capital Conference this season.
Schroeder said he likes playing district-rival Liberty later in the season. The Pioneers and Patriots used to open the season against each other.
“Not only is it Week 1, but you’re facing your crosstown sister-school,” Schroeder said. “That was hard for our kids to come down from playing (Liberty) and get back up for Week 2.”
Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South round out the division.
Olentangy, Liberty and Central each made the OHSAA Division I playoffs last season and each look to continue those successes.
Westerville South has sophomore running back Jaelen Gill, who has already been offered by six Big Ten schools, including Ohio State and several other national powers, according to multiple recruiting websites.
Westerville North hired former Big Walnut and Buckeye Valley coach Scott Wetzel, who won a state title while at the helm of the Golden Eagles in 2007. Wetzel will try to turn around a program that has won just five of its last 40 games.
Orange has games against playoff teams from last year — Worthington Kilbourne (D-II) and Bishop Watterson (D-III) — and a Thursday night game at Dublin Jerome, which narrowly missed the D-I playoffs.
Big Walnut and Newark round out the non-league schedule. The Pioneers went 1-5 against teams on their schedule from last year, including a 21-14 win over Big Walnut.
Schroeder continues to build the Orange program brick by brick, and hopes all the hard work will pay off in wins this season.
Schroeder cites leadership as a strength with this team. He pointed to J.D. Dayhuff (quarterback), Emerson Milner (tight end), Sam Almond (wide receiver) and Zach Skidmore (offensive guard), who are among 20 seniors on this season’s squad, as leaders.
“Our senior leadership has been phenomenal by those core group of guys,” Schroeder said. “They’ve worked really hard to change the program and make us a championship-caliber program.”
Orange’s offense was held to 14 points or less in each of its first four games last season before finding its stride, scoring 20 points or more in each of its last six games.
Dayhuff is coming off his first season as the full-time starting quarterback after splitting time his sophomore season. Schroeder pointed to the quarterback’s diligence as his best asset.
“He’s one of those people who is going to be so successful in whatever he does because he’s going to think about it, write about it and ask questions about it until he gets it perfect,” Schroeder said. “When your quarterback has that mindset, it’s a lot of fun as a coaching staff because he doesn’t leave anything to chance.”
Dayhuff will take snaps from junior center Jake Zinn, who will anchor an offensive line that includes Skidmore, Matthew Zolkin (senior tackle), James Rankin (senior guard), Nate Gadrim (junior tackle) and junior Matthew Parker, who is the group’s Jack of all trades.
“More on the offensive line than the defensive line, we’re still a little green, but we like the kids that we have,” Schroeder said. “We have those six guys and it’ll be nice to be able to give those guys a break because of (Parker) — he’ll play any spot.”
Junior Luke Schmeling will back up at quarterback and see time at wide receiver as well.
“There are a lot of Central Ohio schools where Luke would probably be the guy,” Schroeder said. “It’s good knowing that we have a junior quarterback, who’s been in the offense for two years, who we wouldn’t bat an eye just running our offense if he were to go in the game.”
Orange has to replace leading rusher Tyler Lichter, but has plenty of candidates led by Bobby Eleyet (senior), Graham Starn (junior), Mark Roberts (sophomore), Zach Pfeiffer (senior) and Jack Applegate (junior).
“The running back room right now is really competitive,” Schroeder said. “It’ll be interesting to see if we have a workhorse … right now it looks like we’ll have three guys with 12 to 16 carries a game just because they all bring different things to the table.”
The Pioneers lost three of the top four receivers from last year (Hunter Shepherd, Matthew Collins and Michael Sargent). The only returnee is Milner at tight end, who caught 16 balls for 213 yards and a touchdown as a junior.
“We’ve got guys that are ready to play,” Schroeder said. “We did lose those guys, but the young talent at the wide receiver position is really good.”
Almond, Trevor Collins (freshman), Jack Neer (junior), Jordan Shelton (junior), Jayden Rodgers (junior), Garrett Runyon (junior), Zach Harrison (sophomore) and Manny Anderson (junior) will provide depth at wide receiver.
“A lot of those guys are 6-foot-2 or above — we haven’t had that kind of height,” Schroeder said. “We’re going to, at times, look completely different than we have in the past.”
The defense also found success in the second half of last season. After giving up 30 points or more in four of its first five games, Orange held opponents under 20 points in three of the final five games, including a 35-0 shutout win against Mount Vernon in Week 6.
But the Pioneers will have some new faces leading the defense after losing Blake Skuratowicz, Tyler Houston, Nick Melsop and Josh Forrester to graduation — four of the team’s top five tacklers.
Zach Harrison (sophomore/end), Mitch Clifford (senior/nose tackle), TJ Coates (senior/end), Brayden Creasap (junior/tackle) and Nate Gadrim (junior/tackle) will all see time on the defensive line.
“The defensive line is talented and long,” Schroeder said. “They’re going to rush the passer very well.”
Bryce Houston (junior/middle linebacker), Christian Albertini (senior/outside linebacker), Zane Fisher (junior/outside linebacker) and Thomas Worthington transfer Vince Reda (senior/outside linebacker) anchor the linebackers for the Pioneers.
Rodgers has one cornerback spot nailed down and either Pfeiffer, Dayhuff or Runyon will play the other. Jimmy Sensibaugh (junior) and Steven Collins (senior) will handle the safety positions.
Joe Metcalf (senior) and Almond are back handling the kicking and punting duties.
The Pioneers open against the same team they closed out last year against: Worthington Kilbourne. Kickoff is set for Friday night at 7:30 p.m.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.