Coach: Ken James, 25th year, 125-121.
Last year: 7-4 (6-0, TAAC).
Forecast: The Rangers rolled through the TAAC last season for their third straight title, followed by their fifth playoff appearance in school history.
Northwood, which outscored opponents 369-241, advanced to the Division V playoffs, which eventually reached the state semifinals.
“We were able to run a little on Patrick Henry, but we didn’t throw as efficiently as we wanted to do,” James said. “We’re trying to get bigger and more athletic at wideout. We constantly try to impress on our kids that they need to concentrate on making themselves quicker and more explosive.”
Defensively, Northwood’s plan is to use more man coverage and blitzes. On offense, James said the Rangers need to do a better job of throwing the ball when teams stack the line of scrimmage.
With 57 players on the roster, this is the biggest team James has had in his 25 years at Northwood. Nine starters return on offense and defense.
The Rangers’ wishbone offense is led by senior quarterback Erik Russell, a second-team All-TAAC performer last year.
“We want him to be more efficient throwing the ball and be able to move around the pocket a little more and avoid turnovers,” James said. “He has to make sure the right guys get the ball. He’s moving around the pocket better than he ever has. The key for him is getting it to the playmakers we have, because we have quite a few of them.”
Russell has plenty of senior running backs to hand the ball to, including leading returning rusher Zach Bermejo, a halfback who earned second-team All-TAAC honors after gaining more than 800 yards and averaging more than 8 per carry. Bermejo will be joined in the backfield by halfbacks Mike Prothero and Jake Pressley and honorable mention All-TAAC fullback Corey Jones.
“Most schools have good backs, but we’ve got a lot of them,” James said. “We’re trying to find some different ways to get them the ball. They’re all having great preseasons and our expectations for them are pretty high because they’ve all produced for us before.”
Other returning starters include senior split end Zach Wielinski, junior split end Matt Jeffries, senior all-conference guard Tyler Johnson, senior center Matt Miller and sophomore guard David Bogart. Split ends John Romstadt, a senior, and junior Logan Genson also saw lots of playing time.
The defense will be anchored by the 6-1, 250-pound Jones, who played middle linebacker early last season before being moved to end.
“We needed someone to rush the passer and for a kid his size, he runs really well,” James said. “He’s done a good job in the offseason of making himself faster and stronger. He’s one of our faster kids. Colleges that use fullbacks are pretty interested in him.”
Prothero, a first-team All-TAAC linebacker, returns after leading the team with nearly 100 tackles a year ago. Pressley, who also earned first-team honors, had five interceptions from his safety position. He is also Northwood’s punter and place-kicker.
Other returning starters include Romstadt, a second-team all-conference corner, Bermejo at linebacker, sophomore linebacker Nick Whitmore, junior corner Tyler Mack, junior safety Ricky Hartley and sophomore free safety Nick Russell.
Whitmore earned second-team All-TAAC honors as a freshman after moving from outside linebacker to middle linebacker during the season.
“He’s a football player,” James said. “He’s real good. He’s been good since the fourth grade.”
Junior linebacker Andrew Lord, senior end James Radcliffe, sophomore tackle Justin Rohrs and end John Segura all got playing time last year.