COLUMBUS GROVE – Searching for an identity.
Columbus Grove comes into this year looking to find itself and new leaders in hopes of continuing its winning ways after graduating a talented senior class that won three consecutive Northwest Conference title that was capped off last year with a playoff run that ended in the state semifinals against Coldwater.
Gone are all-state quarterback and four year starter Blake Reynolds, all-everything Gabe Clement and all-district lineman Jeff Meyer and linebacker Ezra Jones to name a few.
But that does not mean the cupboard is bare at the Bulldogs and head coach Andy Schafer is confident his team contend for a fourth straight league once they find their identity.
“Obviously I am just trying to keep up the momentum, Schafer said. “But the only bad thing with a playoff situation is you end with a loss unless you went in all so we kind of have a bad taste in our mouth after that Coldwater loss which our kids felt we had a chance to beat the. We lost by 14 but we were always there …so I think coming into this year over last year is getting over that season ending loss that was pretty heartbreaking but also building on the momentum of the last few years.
“We honestly don’t talk about last year’s team too much. I just don’t think that is the right thing to do with this year’s group especially but I think everybody in Grove and the Northwest Conference know what we lost and certainly on our team.”
Headlining talent on a team usually does not begin with kicker but Columbus Grove has one of the top ones in the area in Rece Verhoff who is being recruited by a number of Division I schools and is a valued weapon for the Bulldogs. Verhoff, who can kick 40-plus yard field goals and has made 94 percent of his extra points, averages 39.8 yards a punt.
“He has changed the way that I coach and I also think he changed the way people have prepared for us in terms of his ability to kick field goals,” Schafer said.
Verhoff’s added dimension to score points will assist in an offense that will have someone what of a different look this season as junior Brenton Renner slips into the quarterback position for Reynolds.
“I like to have a blanced attack and mis in the run and the pass but I think this year we are in a transition because with Reynolds and the receivers we had we could throw the ball deep an this year we will have more of a short pass approach and that is might be our identity.”
Helping to make that transition easier is the return of Jacksen Schroeder at receiver who Schafer describes as more of slot receiver and can fit in with the short game.
“We are going to need some of our so called no-name receivers to step forward and make some plays,” Schafer added.
In addition to Schroeder, Luke Kauffman, Landon Myers, Shep Halker, Zac Reynolds and Trent Bazzara will see playing time as pass catchers.
One area of the offense the Bulldogs should be solid in is the running game with the return of Colin Metzger who rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns including the regular season and the playoffs and shined in the postseason where he exhibited that he can carry an offense on his back.
Returning letterwinner Mitch Douglas, a third year starter and all-league performer, anchors the Bulldog line along with A.J. Schafer as the tight end spot who should also play a role in the short passing game.
Joining Douglas and Schafer on the line this year is Tadd Koch, Dillon Bryan, Joe Kohli, Ethan Johnson, Ryan Koenig and Robbie Lyons.
Like the offense, the defense is also seeing some changes and it starts with the front seven as the Bulldogs transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 set with the linebacke corps being the strenigh of the team.
Schafer said the reason for the change is the number of big plays the Bulldogs were prone to last season.
“We gave up way to many yards last year,” Schafer said “I want to get some hand’s in the dirt.”
In order to do this, Schafer has moved Lawson Maag from linebacker to the defensive line and Douglas will be the other end to provide speed on the outside.
“Mitch is an all-state guy and Landon has spped and makes it hard for people to block him,” Schafer said.
Also expected to see time on the defensive line and fill the defensive tackle slots are Dylan Birchnaugh, Koenig, Bonnell, Dillon Bryan and Ethan Johnson.
Schafer said the strength of the team is in the linebackers and A.J. Schafer, Tadd Koch and Joe Kohli all saw action last year. Schafer had 75 tackles and one interception, Koch has 132 career tackles and two sacks and had an interception and a sack last year.
Schafer’s primary concern comes in the secondary but it should be better with the return of Schroeder, and Landon Myers, a NWC honorable mention selection last season.
Luke Kaufman, Shep Halker, Zac Reynolds and Lucas Otto will all get an opportunity to play in the defensive backfield.
Because this team is still searching for its identity and looking to come together as a team, Schafer said that it is important this team work hard early especially with a shortened preseason that sees schools jumping into scrimmages after the first week.
“I don’t know what it is,” Schafer said about this team’s identity or what to expect. “It is going to be a challenge finding out identity by week two. “It is no secret we don’t have Blake Reynolds and we have had 7-on-7s this summer and that has helped but we don’t have that guy we can hang our hat on like we did with Blake just yet. Right now we are figuring it out on the fly.