Change is the only constant in high school football from year to year. Yet on the heels of last year's immensely successful campaign, the 2013 Thomas Heyward football team is dealing with more than its fair share.
Following its hard-fought 29-22 loss to conference rival Hilton Head Christian Academy in the South Carolina Independent School Athletic Association Class 2-A title game last November, Thomas Heyward lost 16 of its 32 varsity players to graduation.
So while veteran head coach Nic Shuford may not be rebuilding his successful program in 2013, there's no question he's retooling it.
"There's no doubt we are going to be a different football team than we were last year," Shuford said.
"But if we continue to improve every week and work hard in practice every day, I can see us getting back to where we were last year."
That's a tall order considering that among the players who moved on were standout quarterback JD Tuten, explosive running back and special teams star Ryan Day and receiver Bryan Lee Wade.
Those three seniors weren't just the two most explosive talents on the squad last year; they were the leaders in the locker room through actions and words.
"I don't think you can even try to replace those guys," Shuford said. "They were just a different breed on the field, in the locker room and in the weight room. But we have guys on this team that watched what they did and will be ready to step up"
Key among those players is senior quarterback Davis Owens, who steps in to fill Tuten's rather large shoes on a full-time basis this season after making several spot starts last year.
Included in those emergency fill-ins was a first-round playoff victory over Oakbrook Prep that sent the Rebels to the state semifinals with their star quarterback sidelined by injury. That experience will serve the senior well as he takes over the reins this season.
"I just need to keep reminding myself that I'm Davis Owens, not J.D. Tuten," the senior said. "I've put a lot of work in and I'm looking forward to the opportunity we have together as a team."
While Owens will prove a quality replacement under center, losing Day to graduation is a tougher hurdle to clear. The do-everything tailback was the lighting in Thomas Heyward's offense, boasting the ability to score from anywhere on the field every time he touched the football.
Day rushed for 200 yards in five straight games last year and was the team's primary special teams threat as well.
Shuford expects to replace the multi-sport standout with a running back by committee approach that will heavily feature junior Jared Rountree.
Senior Seth Jones, the No. 2 wide-out last year, will play a key role as Owens' top downfield target, and is more than capable of making up for the production left behind by Wade.
The key to the offense, however, is the large-yet-inexperienced offensive line that will feature three new starters. Leading the way up front is sophomore Carson Broyles and senior Brodie Etheridge, but they're going to need help to protect Owens and open holes for the running backs.
Getting that front unit playing as well as it did last year is critical if the Rebels are to keep rolling this year.
"We'll really need that group to come together quickly," Shuford of his big men up front. "We have a lot of size, especially for SCISA, but we have to get the group working together as a unit to be successful."
Given that many of Thomas Heyward's athletes play both ways, there are holes to fill on defense just as there are on offense. The good news for Shuford is the size he is counting on to open up holes on the offensive side is poised to plug them on the flip side of the ball.
Indeed, Heyward's strength defensively will be its front seven, which will need to protect a young, inexperienced secondary that struggled at times last year.
In addition to the bigs up front, Jones will be the team's leader from his linebacker position.
"We play both ways so we'll have a lot of size at the front and that will certainly help our linebackers make plays behind them," Shuford said. "Our ability to get a push up front and force the quarterback to throw it before he wants to will help our coverage in the back."
With so many new players to work in and significant questions to figure out, it's a good thing Thomas Heyward opens the season with three consecutive home games and doesn't tackle its first region test until a tussle at Hilton Head Prep on Oct. 11.
A week later, the Rebels will get a shot at redemption when they welcome Hilton Head Christian to Harvey-Beach Stadium for the first time in two years.
"Our region is very difficult," Shuford remarked. "Christian Academy returns a lot of talent, Hilton Head Prep is going to be improved and I don't think Palmetto Christian lost very much from last year."
By that time the Rebels get that rematch with rival Hilton Head Christian they will have shown exactly who they are, but their new on-field leader is confident he already has the answer to that question even before the season kicks off Aug. 23 against power Orangeburg Prep.
"We lost half the team from last year, but a lot of the guys here understand what it takes to win," Owens said. "A lot of us remember the feeling we had at the end of the championship game last year and we don't want to feel that again. They guys have worked hard this summer to get better."
That's the attitude that got Thomas Heyward all the way to the title game a season ago. It's also the one that will help the Rebels avoid taking a step backward even when it appears reasonable that they would.
Stadium: Harvey-Beach Stadium
Region: SCISAA Region 2-AA
Coach: Nic Shuford (30-15, 5th year)
2012 Results: 12-2; lost in SCISA Class 2-A championship game to Hilton Head Christian Academy
Key losses: QB JD Tuten; RB Ryan Day; WR Bryan Lee Wade; OL/DL Nick Kiefer; LB/DE Zach Newton
Top returning starters: QB/DB Davis Owens; LB/WR Seth Jones; OL/DL Brodie Ethridge; OL/DL Carson Boyles; OL/DL Shane Mixson
Key Newcomers: WR Bret Mixson; WR Will Weaver; OL Sam Thompson
Date Opponent W/L Score
Aug. 17 Orangeburg Prep W 14-6
Aug. 24 Bible Baptist (Ga.) W 40-14
Aug. 31 Calhoun Academy W 56-0
Sept. 7 COLLETON PREP W 49-14
Sept. 14 Robert E. Lee Academy W 55-0
Sept. 21 THOMAS SUMTER ACADEMY W 54-14
Sept. 28 ST. ANDREW'S (Ga.) W 49-12
Oct. 5 HILTON HEAD PREP W 60-14
Oct. 12 Hilton Head Christian L 20-13
Oct. 19 NORTHWOOD ACADEMY W 42-27
Oct. 26 Palmetto Christian W 60-28
Nov. 2 OAKBROOK PREP* W 49-13
Nov. 9 Thomas Sumter Academy* W 50-7
Nov. 17 Hilton Head Christian* L 29-22
HOME GAMES IN CAPS *Playoff games
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 23 ORANGEBURG PREP 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 30 BIBLE BAPTIST (Ga.) 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 6 CALHOUN ACADEMY 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 13 Colleton Prep 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 20 ROBERT E. LEE ACADEMY 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 27 Thomas Sumter Academy 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3 St Andrew's (Ga.) 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 11 Hilton Head Prep* 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 18 HILTON HEAD CHRISTIAN ACADEMY* 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 25 Northwood Academy* 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 1 PALMETTO CHRISTIAN* 7:30 p.m.
HOME GAMES IN CAPS *Region Opponent
Players to Watch
Davis Owens, QB
After filling in several times last year when JD Tuten was injured, Owens takes over the quarterback duties from the longtime celebrated starter. As he goes, it's likely the Rebels go in 2013. "Davis has a good knowledge of the game, and he understands what we are trying to do," Shuford said. "That's probably his best attribute. He's going to put us in good positions to make plays."
Seth Jones, LB
Playing behind a sizable front line, Jones will have the opportunities to make plays up front and ease the pressure on the Rebels' inexperienced back four. "I think he is going to have a really big year," Shuford said.
Three Keys to the Season
Toe the line: It will take some time, but more than half of the 2012 starting offensive line gone, the Rebels will need its large-but-inexperienced front to gel before its region slate begins in early October. "They have to work well as a unit," Shuford said. "We have two returning guys, but that's only two out of five. They need to come together."
Jones on both sides: Seth Jones must be a force on both sides of the ball if the Rebels are going to make a playoff run for the third consecutive season. Jones will be Thomas Heyward's biggest threat in the passing game and will anchor the defense from his linebacker post. "Seth is going to be a central figure in all this," Shuford said. "I know it was only seven on seven, but we didn't play anyone (in scrimmages) all summer that could stop him."
Secondary concerns: Unless something changes, the Rebels will have four underclassmen patrolling the back side of its defense this year. That group will have to mature quickly if Thomas Heyward is going to protect against big plays that will put pressure on its less-dynamic offense to respond. "Even last year with all that talent we had a hard time defending the pass," Shuford said. "We have two sophomores starting at corner, a sophomore starting at strong safety and possibly a freshman starting at free safety."
No. Name Position Height Weight Class
2 Collin Roach RB/DB 5-8 155 Soph.
4 William Weaver 6-0 145 Fr.
5 Jared Rountree RB/DB 5-7 165 Jr.
6 Zach Belger RB/DB 5-9 155 Soph.
7 Konner Harrell 5-8 140 8th
9 Anthony Sanders RB/DB 5-6 125 Soph.
10 Davis Owens QB/DB 5-9 160 Sr.
12 Seth Jones WR/LB 6-1 210 Sr.
14 Chase Kunich WR 5-11 140 Soph.
18 Bret Mixson WR 5-9 135 Fr.
20 Mark Woods Jr. 6-1 175 Jr.
21 Ryan Cowart 5-10 150 Soph.
24 Spencer Hexamer 5-5 110 Fr.
25 Andrew Boyles 5-8 150 Fr.
40 Jason Quick LB 6-0 195 Jr.
50 Shane Mixson OL/DL 5-10 190 Sr.
51 Tank Boni OL/DL 6-0 285 Soph.
52 Michael Humbert OL/DL 5-10 190 Sr.
54 Alex Arzillo 5-7 155 Fr.
58 Vandy Clark 5-11 215 Soph.
60 Brodie Ethridge OL/DL 5-8 190 Sr.
61 Justin Davis 5-3 145 Fr.
65 Dean Boyles 5-11 145 Jr.
66 Ethan Glassberg 5-9 150 Fr.
68 Sam Thompson OL/DL 6-2 265 Sr.
70 Jessie McKenzie OL/DL 6-0 265 Jr.
72 Carson Boyles 6-2 225 Soph.
77 Christian Jansky 6-2 255 Jr.