With just six starters returning, Benton High School's football program is in a rebuilding mode.
First-year coach Justin Groves has eight seniors -- five of them returning starters -- although a number of underclassmen will fill starting roles on both sides of the line.
Benton Varsity Football ScheduleSchedule
Aug. 24 At Carterville
Aug. 31 Sparta
Sept. 7 At Pinckneyville
Sept. 14 Herrin
Sept. 22 West Frankfort
Sept. 28 At Harrisburg
Oct. 5 At Massac Co.
Oct. 12 Murphysboro
Oct. 19 Anna-Jonesboro
"Defensively, we'll have two seniors so we'll be very young," Groves said.
Senior Joey Craig broke his wrist earlier in the summer and missed all the camps and scrimmages. He is expected to be back in time for the opening game, switching from defensive back to linebacker.
"He looks good without pads on. He's going to be fine wherever we put him," Groves said. Craig will be joined at linebacker by classmate Andrew Dunn, also a returning running back; and junior Jaron Picklesimer has been a "pleasant surprise," according to the head coach.
Groves believes one of the team's strengths will be its offensive line, which returns three seniors -- Austin Crawford, Daniel Richardson and center Carston Sanders. Junior Tyler Butler will also return to both the offensive and defensive lines and Craig's brother, sophomore Gabe, has been impressive in early practices.
"The line is the strength of our team," Groves said. "Outside those three seniors, we're probably going to have a couple of younger guys playing there. There's some good competition right now. I think the five we put on the field will be able to protect the quarterback when we throw the ball, but more importantly, we expect them to get some movement up front allowing us to run the ball."
Remaining seniors include: Dylan Lampley, Hayden Rone (DL) and Jaydon Stark (defensive line/linebacker).
Junior Grant Gordon has been tabbed as the starting quarterback, filling the spot vacated by four-year starter Hamilton Page.
"He played freshman and sophomore football. He got hurt last year as the scouting team quarterback. He's back and looks good for us. He's got a good command of the offense and we're looking forward to running and throwing the ball with him," Groves said.
Dunn, who played behind fullback Blane Pankey a year ago, anchors the backfield.
"He knows what we expect out of him. Expectations are very clear. Hopefully, he'll perform like we want him to," Groves said. Sophomore Peyton Swigonski is expected to fill a running back position and a linebacker on defense.
"He wrestled for the first time last year and ended up being a sectional qualifier. He's a kid we're going to look to for a lot this year," Groves said. "I knew he was going to be good defensively. I'm excited about using in a couple of different places."
The receiving crops consists of Craig and juniors Jaron Picklesimer, Blake Stewart and Tre Hosic.
Groves said the offensive strategy will remain the same.
"The philosophies behind it are going to be a little different and some of the ways we do things will be different but we're still going to look to throw the ball around and control the line of scrimmage," Groves said.
New offensive coordinator Matt Brown, former standout quarterback at Marion High School and Illinois State University, will have a definite impact on the offensive schemes.
"The two of us have had a lot of conversations to develop an offense that pleases both of us," Groves said. "With (line coach) Austin Dickson's help, we've been able to put together a system that everybody needs to feel like we're doing the right thing. If we can run and throw the ball, we'll have a chance to be OK. We're just going to be so young and inexperienced, can we grasp everything quick enough? That's where I'm at right now."
Defensively, the Rangers will be young and inexperienced, too.
"I feel we're OK everywhere. We're looking at a young defense with some juniors up front that will give us some experience for next year. Our linebacking corps is going to be two sophomores, a senior and junior. We're developing our secondary every day. We're going to try to get the best kids in the best spots as we can," Groves said.
Junior Darrett Cardwell is also expected to see plenty of game action.
"He's a kid who was somewhere in the mix offensively and defensively to earn a spot and he could end up being one of our best defensive players," Groves said. "He really working hard and gets better every day. With him, Butler and Tristan Bigham (junior) who have played on the line on the 'D' line, I think our defensive line could get nasty," Groves said.
Entering this season, the first-year coach said he wants his team to compete on and off the field and have a group of kids that represent the community well.
"We want to see kids that are coachable, able to keep their poise and never hang their head. The wins and losses will come because I will live with whatever outcome we get from that."
Competing for the Ohio Division title in the River to River Conference and ultimately making the playoffs are two team goals the players "are on board" with, Groves said.
"It's not just my goal, that's what the team wants. People don't think this team can do it. I know this team can do it. If they keep following the lead of the coaches, they'll do it."
Benton kicks off its season at 7 p.m. Friday at Carterville.