Olentangy football coach Mark Solis described his offense as putting lipstick on a pig, but he believes the high standard of a third consecutive OCC title and a second state final four in three years is not only attainable, but expected.
“The standard here is high — the previous classes have set the bar,” Solis said. “We’ve told our kids, ‘if that’s not your standard — if that’s not your goal — then this isn’t for you and you’ve gotta go find something else to do,’” Solis said. “We are working with that in mind.”
Olentangy hasn’t lost a league game since Oct. 18, 2013 — that’s 16 straight conference wins and back-to-back undefeated seasons in the league since a 33-0 loss at Worthington Kilbourne.
That was the OCC-Capital. Now, Olentangy will have to do it in the new OCC-Buckeye Division with sister schools Olentangy Liberty and Olentangy Orange along with Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South.
“When you’ve had the kind of success that we’ve had, there’s a responsibility that comes with it,” Solis said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best punch week-in and week-out.”
Olentangy will face Hilliard Darby (Aug. 26), Reynoldsburg (Sept. 8), Dublin Coffman (Sept. 16), Liberty (Oct. 14) and Westerville Central (Oct. 28), all OHSAA Division I playoff teams last season.
“We got our work cut out for us,” Solis said.
Olentangy has to replace 31 players who graduated off of last year’s team … and a lot of production.
Quarterback Deeb Haber (3,141 yards passing and 33 touchdowns) and receivers Jacob O’Donnell (59 receptions, 1,021 yards and 19 touchdowns) and Obi Anunike (61 receptions, 791 yards and 7 touchdowns) are among those lost on offense.
Seth O’Neal, who played both sides of the ball, was third on the team with 237 yards rushing and third on the team with 426 yards receiving and four touchdowns.
Solis (32-5 overall and 19-2 in the OCC in three seasons) said this team will have to focus on the details this season.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys this year,” he said. “We’ve been very particular about how we practice. I really like where our football team is at. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I see it coming together.”
Olentangy is going to lean a little more on the run.
“We’re not going to be that really flashy offense, but we’ll be effective,” Solis said. “We’re going grind you … we’re going to be extremely physical. Our strength is up front and these running backs.”
That’s not all that surprising considering the Braves are returning their top two rushers off of last season’s squad — senior Cam Kennedy (1,048 yards and 9 touchdowns) and junior Ali Iverson (505 yards and 5 touchdowns).
“That’s one of the fun parts of coaching is identifying their skill sets and what they do well and really tailoring your offense to their strengths,” Solis said. “You can’t really make them fit into something if they don’t fit. I’ve always believed in that and will always do that here.”
Matt Gray (senior/guard) and Hayden Schmidt (senior/tackle) return while Nathan Murphy (junior/guard), Rodas Johnson (sophomore/tackle) and Case McCoy (senior/center) round out the offensive line. Ethan Gates (junior) and Matthew McCauley (junior) will provide depth.
Connor Haag (sophomore) will step in to play quarterback and Sam Durst (sophomore) will back him up. Haag, described as “Deeb-like”, will give Olentangy more options in the passing game.
“Just like we did with Deeb (Haber), I may have to accelerate (Haag’s) learning curve,” Solis said. “(I might have) to just throw him to the fire and let him go through some growing pains.”
Durst, Nathan Reidel (senior), Caden Kaiser (sophomore) and Trey Simpson (junior) will handle the wide receiver positions.
Ian Drummond (sophomore), a transfer from Bishop Fenwick in Franklin, and Colin Wakefield (junior) will see time at the H-back and tight end positions.
“(Drummond) has made some big plays in the preseason, so I’m really excited about him,” Solis said.
Olentangy loses quite a bit of production on the defensive side of the ball. Jimmy Elmurr (159 total tackles), Chris Crumb (136), Alex Draime (113), Luke Hurlburt (103) and Rahim Benton (92) were the team’s top five tacklers.
Also, O’Neal led the team with six interceptions to go with two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and six pass break-ups.
“The guys that are hard to replace are the Crumbs and the Elmurrs,” Solis said. “But the things that the defense asked Crumb to do last year, we’re not asking our D-tackle to do this year.”
Olentangy will have a new defensive scheme, changing from a 4-4 defense to a 4-3 under new coordinator Dan Harris. The defense will utilize a 3-4 set from time to time this season as well.
Zach Slade (junior/end), Jacob Slade (junior/end), Trevor Tuvelle (senior/tackle) and Austin Corry (senior/tackle) will anchor the defensive line. Tuvelle returns as a starter.
Olentangy will have a new set of linebackers in Max Hall (senior/outside), Xavier Harrison (junior/middle) and Xander Gore (junior/outside), and Justin Stewart (junior) will see time as well.
Deonta Mack (senior) and Kyler Severance (senior) both return at the corner back positions and Braxtyn Baldwin (senior) and Braydon Chitty (junior) will anchor the safety spots. Nick Pellock (senior) will share time at safety.
Olentangy lost kicker Jacob Bell, who was 12-for-17 on field goals and 50-for-53 on extra points and punter Jacob Jenkusky, who averaged 39.8 yards per punt in 25 punts last season.
Junior Josh Petrone will take over both the kicking and punting duties this season and James Rosenberry (junior) will handle the long-snapping duties.
“He’s had a great camp — very consistent with his kicking,” Solis said. “We work very hard on our special teams here. (Rosenberry) is as good as you’re going to get, so we’re excited about that. That’s why our kicking game is looking good — when you have a guy that can snap as well as he can.”
Olentangy opens at Hilliard Darby Friday night at 7:30 p.m.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.