WOODWARD — All Woodward-Granger football head coach George Ashman has to figure out this season is how to replace a quarterback and a running back, both of whom were First Team All-State picks, and a Second Team All-State offensive lineman from a team that finished 11-1.
Gone are 2,350 of W-G’s 3307 rushing yards and 31 of the team’s 43 TDs scored on the ground along with a 70 percent career passer who threw for 1,506 yards and 22 TDs against just five interceptions.
"We had a great run with that group of seniors, no doubt about it," Ashman said. "But when they were freshmen we had only just returned to the playoffs one year, and they had to establish a tradition. Now that is in place and the job for this group is to see if they can maintain it."
W-G was 41-7 overall (34-3 in regular season play) the past four seasons, with three trips to the state quarterfinals included in the mix. Toss in playoff trips in each of the two preceeding seasons and the green-and-gold have a six-year streak to protect. In the process of building that tradition the Hawks became ‘the team to beat’ and now, although two all-state players and other talent returns, Ashman knows the opposition in Class A District 7, along with non-district foes Ogden and DM Christian, will be out for revenge.
"They will see who we lost and think this is their chance for some payback," Ashman said of the opposition. "Our guys know and understand that, but if anyone thinks they are just going to lay down they are going to be in for a surprise. These guys know what it means to be successful and are working hard to maintain our string of making the playoffs. They know what has been passed down to them and they are determined to keep it going."
Ashman will go with younger son Cole, a junior, replacing older brother Taylor — a four-year starter — at quarterback. He will hand off to Marshall Nieland, who was a Second Team All-State pick at wideout last autumn after catching 43 passes for 823 yards and 10 scores. Quick and elusive, Nieland’s 19.1 yards per catch average was second in Class A among receivers with 40 or more catches. Either Dylan Nixon or Michael Connor will play fullback.
"We will still run the ‘I’ like we have every year, but we will have to make some adjustments as to what we run out of it," coach Ashman admitted. "We have a bunch of skilled kids up front but not the size we have had in the past.
"The offensive line could make or break us," he added. "We will use a lot of movement to take advantage of their quickness and footwork and try more misdirection plays and counters. If they can step it up we should be alright."
Hunter McNeill will snap the ball at center, with Dyllan Rosenbaum and Mason Burkhart at guard, with Lane Kooiker, Ryan Hodges and Nixon the leading choices to man the two tackle spots.
"We are going to need our offensive linemen to play smart and know what their assignments are," coach Ashman said. "We won’t be doing as much of the straigh-ahead, downhill stuff as we have in the past and any time you start running counters and sweeps and pulling guys it is crucial they know where they are going and what they need to do. It also means we will need good protection behind the play to stop penetration and pursuit."
Tanner Canova was a First Team All-State pick at defensive end and will return at tight end, where he caught eight passes for 253 yards and four scores in 2012 while Alex Bodermann, Race Brant and Seth Noel will all see duties at the wideout spots.
Kooiker is likely to resume punting duties, with Nieland currently penciled in for the placekicking chores.
The Hawks proved vulnerable up the middle on the ground to big, physical teams at points last year and that remains a source of concern for coach Ashman.
"I think we have one of the best pairs of defensive ends in our class in Canova and Kooiker and am confident no one is going to have much success trying to get outside on us," he stated. "What we have to do is be stronger right up the gut. If we can clog things up just a little bit the rest will take care of itself."
Rosenbaum and Burkhart will start at the defensive tackle spots, with others rotated in as needed. Connor, Nieland, Nixon, Brant and Dylan Garland will rotate through the four linebacking spots, with Bodermann and Noel at cornerback and Ashman at free safety.
"We are not 100 percent at some spots, of course, and as you know we will need to make adjustments based on situations, but I think everyone pretty much knows where they are going to be," Ashman said. "When you have a situation like we have here, one where a really successful group has graduated, the leadership and mental toughness of the next group coming in can make all the difference.
"Our seniors are not real rah-rah types but instead tend to lead by example and that is just fine," he concluded. "We know we face some challenges but we also know that with hard work we can overcome them. If we can come together we will continue to have success."
The Hawks play both of their non-district games on the road, visiting Ogden tonight and Des Moines Christian Sept. 6. The home opener is also the first district game of the year and will be Sept. 13 when Guthrie Center visits.
A trip to Audubon follows, with Sept. 27 set as Homecoming when Martensdale-St. Marys comes to Woodward.
A trip to Earlham Oct. 4 will be followed, Oct. 11, with a home date against arch-rival Madrid. W-G and will take to the visitors sideline Oct. 18 when the Woodward Academy serves as the home team in their annual battle, with the regular season ending Oct. 25 with a game at Bedford. All games will begin at 7 p.m.