In 31 seasons under head coach Mike Glaser, the St. Xavier High School football program had little reason to change. After all, the Tigers’ trademarks — a grind-it-out offense, a stout defense and loads of depth — led to 11 state finals and seven championships under Glaser.
But as the 2013 season opener against Ballard approaches Friday, change has come in a big way on Poplar Level Road:
* Will Wolford, a 1982 St. X graduate and 13-year NFL veteran, has replaced the retired Glaser despite limited head-coaching experience.
* Senior B.J. Nagle, a transfer from Memphis, Tenn., and son of former University of Louisville quarterback Browning Nagle, is the new starting quarterback and gives the Tigers a passing presence they’ve mostly lacked in the past three decades.
* Todd Walsh still is the defensive coordinator but has been charged with overseeing a switch from a 4-4 alignment to a more traditional 3-4 scheme.
* Finally — and perhaps most important to its fans — St. X is not playing second fiddle to archrival Trinity in preseason expectations. Both RivalsHigh and Athlon Sports have the Tigers ranked No. 1 in Kentucky, ahead of the rebuilding Shamrocks.
Wolford knows most fans expect nothing less than the team’s first state title since 2009.
“We want to win our last game, which means coming home with a state championship,” Wolford said. “Anything short of that, is it a successful season? Not really.”
The Tigers return just seven starters (four offense, three defense) from last year’s 8-5 team that lost to Trinity 15-14 in the quarterfinals of the Class 6-A playoffs. But there’s talent up and down the roster, with at least seven seniors projected to play for FBS or FCS colleges.
“We don’t have kids who can go anywhere in the country and play at the next level, but for Division II and Division III we’re 20 deep,” Wolford said.
Nagle (6 feet 3, 220 pounds) transferred from Memphis’ Briarcrest Christian, where he passed for 1,763 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Seniors Will Roshkowski (19 catches, 297 yards, four TDs in 2012) and Luke Hayden will be his top targets.
Senior running back Charles Walker said Nagle’s presence should make the offense more balanced.
“He not only brings an arm, but he also brings legs,” Walker said. “He can throw the ball wherever he wants, so we’re spreading it out more.”
Walker leads three senior running backs after rushing for 1,148 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. Treyveon Percell (643 yards, 12 TDs) and Austin Davis (620 yards, eight TDs) also are back.
Walker, who also will play safety, is considered a leading candidate for Kentucky’s Mr. Football award.
“Charles is a once-every-10-year type of player for St. X,” Wolford said. “He’s a tremendous athlete and a great kid.”
Walker and the others will run behind a tall line — the five starters average 6-4½. Senior guards Austin Askin and Ryan Karrer both are 6-6. Left tackle John Kurtz (6-5, 260) is the lone returning starter on the line.
On defense, only four of the top 13 tacklers return. Wolford is excited about his front three of seniors Lenny Broyles, Skyler Robinson and Clay Schaefer, but he said the line lacks depth.
Linebacker Andrew McCormick and cornerback Dekota Jones are the other top returnees. McCormick said the switch to a 3-4 will help the Tigers take advantage of their depth at linebacker.
“It’s different, but it’s better,” he said. “Our run defense is really, really, really tough this year.”
The schedule is one of the state’s toughest, including defending state champions Trinity (6-A), Bowling Green (5-A) and Central (3-A) and traditional Cincinnati powers Moeller and St. Xavier.
But Wolford knows the real test will come during the playoffs in November. St. X has been eliminated by Trinity in the 6-A quarterfinals the past three seasons, and ending that skid would signal the best change of all.
“If we can stay healthy, with our depth there’s no question we’ll be right in the thick of things,” Wolford said. “Believe me, there’s a lot of pressure on the coaching staff to take advantage of the talent we do have this year.”