Most of the talk before a football season centers around which teams have the most talent returning.
But in the Independent Conference, the early attention has been on two seniors who won’t play this season.
Austin Tilghman, who rushed for a mind-boggling 2,211 yards in nine games last season at St. Andrew’s, has transferred to Archbishop Carroll (Pa.). Tatnall running back Joe Cooper, who would have been the Hornets’ primary ball carrier this year, has decided to focus on basketball after committing to Wagner College in that sport.
All four Independent football teams will carry on, of course. But the landscape has changed.
“When all of this started to go down, I went back and looked through our all-conference team and said, ‘Whoa,’ ” Tatnall coach Jody Russell said. “All of a sudden, our conference is all underclassmen. What would be the senior class kind of dissipated a little bit. … Tower Hill looks like the team to beat now.”
The Hillers won’t shy away from that role, even though the conference was balanced last season. Tower Hill, St. Andrew’s and Wilmington Friends each went 2-1 in the league, while Tatnall was 0-3.
The Hillers will continue to pound away with their distinctive unbalanced single-wing offense. Four starters from last year’s offensive line – Patrick Kelly, Luke Borda, Jack Guan and Jim Guan – return.
“There aren’t many schools around here that do it,” Tower Hill coach Kevin Waesco said of the Hillers’ offense. “There are a handful around the country that have been quite successful with it.”
The Hillers lost about 80 percent of their rushing yardage with the graduations of Will Mette and Anthony Wallace. But Cole Wenzel, Grier Wakefield, Sam Murphy and Jermaine Knotts are prepared for bigger offensive roles, along with 6-foot-4 wide receiver Peter Smith.
With Cooper sticking to the court, Tatnall will have to find other offensive options.
“Your team is never one guy, obviously,” Russell said. “But a piece like [Cooper] is not easily replaced anywhere, much less at a small school like ours.
“It’s going to be more of an all-hands-on-deck approach, as opposed to having Joe touch the ball 35 times a game. Those carries are going to be spread across four or five guys.”
The good news: Running backs Austin Edge and Nyjil Hayward and fullback-middle linebacker Brandon Goodge will run behind an offensive line that returns intact. Karl Holler, Nick Robinson, James Allen, Jason Kramer, Sean Esmond and Pierre Aden all return, and Aden is the only senior among that group.
St. Andrew’s has a new coach in Tom Fritz and a new offense without Tilghman. Fritz has some ideas but won’t be totally sure of the plan until practice begins. As the state’s only boarding school, St. Andrew’s doesn’t begin workouts until Thursday, two weeks behind everyone else.
“We’ve got to get a sense of what these kids are going to be able to do best,” Fritz said. “We’re going to be counting on some sophomores, and I hope they’re up for it.
“My sense is we will base it out of some wing-T and go from there. But if we don’t have three running backs, we can’t be a wing-T team.”
The Saints are expected to rely on lineman Sam Gowen, 6-4 wide receiver Joseph Hines, tight end-defensive lineman Evan Thomas, quarterback-defensive back Ryan Price, running back-linebacker Evan Merriwether and running back Donovan Simpson.
Bob Tattersall has seen it all in his 46 years at Wilmington Friends, and the veteran coach likes what he sees this year. The Quakers began practice with 43 players, the most Tattersall has had in at least 25 years.
But only four of them are seniors, and QB Jack Kempner and tackles Bill Gordon and Gil Connolly will share the leadership as tri-captains.
“You’ve just got to improve each week,” Tattersall said. “So much depends on what the other teams have, but we can’t worry about them as much as just getting better ourselves. … I think each team in our conference is going to be improved.”