The Harrisburg Tigers graduated several significant pieces of its stout 2015 defense, three of whom will play football in college. The team lost another pair of impact starters at the skill positions.
And that’s OK for Tigers head coach Brandon White.
“Our whole senior group (last year) was probably one of the better groups we’ve had collectively,” said White. “But I think this year’s group is just as talented.”
Harrisburg will have to hope that’s the case as it tries to build on from last year’s late-season surge, which ended in the 11AA state semifinals. The Tigers lost to eventual state champion Yankton.
The three most obvious voids that will need to be filled are at middle linebacker, defensive tackle and defensive end. Ethan Roth (DT), Jacob Headlee (DE) and Jacob Klemme (MLB) all graduated and will play at the next level.
“(Those holes) are gonna be hard to fill,” White said. “But our kids have put in the time and they’re ready to fill in those roles.”
White said he’ll go for a platoon approach to restructure the defensive line, mixing in six to eight different players any given night. Junior Logan Warzecha is slotted in at middle linebacker.
Despite losing several starters on offense as well, the Tigers have the most important position solidified.
Junior Hunter Headlee enters his first full season as the starting quarterback after taking over just before the playoffs started in 2015 when the starter sprained his ankle.
White said Headlee has benefited immensely from having the offseason to settle into his role as the starting signal caller.
“He had a huge offseason,” White said. “In the semifinal game, everything was moving so fast (for him). Things have really slowed down for him this year — the readings, the progression he goes through in the pass game. If we call a check at the line of scrimmage, he’s able to do all those this year. … The mental part has really come a long way.”
White said Headlee’s leadership has come a long way, too.
“I need to be a good leader on this team and command this team,” Headlee said Thursday at the Tigers’ first practice. “I think that this team is great, and we can accomplish great things with great leadership.”
Headlee will have new weapons at his disposal, as the Tigers graduated starting wide receiver Paul Paul and starting running back Dylan Tams.
But as with the defense, White sees new names stepping in seamlessly.
White is looking to junior Jack Anderson to fill in at running back. He’s hoping some of Anderson’s track skill — he won the long jump while placing fourth in the 100 and 200 in the AA state meet last spring — can translate to the gridiron.
“He played in a limited role last year, but this year he’s gonna kind of put his footprint on our offensive schemes,” White said. “He can really fly.”
Filling Paul’s shoes will be a trio of basketball players — Justis Clayton, Elliot Cain and Garret Severy — who joined the football team for their senior seasons.
“They give us a lot more length,” White said. “They can grab a rebound off the rim, so hopefully they’re able to do that on the field as well.”
It might look good on paper, but White will have to hope the new pieces gel quickly. He said the Tigers have a tough schedule, and because of the nature of the playoffs, home-field advantage in the semifinals is crucial.
“In the history of 11AA, the teams that host that semifinal game are the ones that go on to the (Dakota) Dome,” said White. “There haven’t been many upsets on the road in the last three years.”
Follow Ryan Heuer on Twitter at @ArgusRHeuer .
AT A GLANCE
COACH: Brandon White (7th year)
2015: 6-5 (lost in state semifinals)
RETURNING STARTERS: 1 offense, 3 defense
STRENGTHS: Several underclassmen come in with postseason experience after filling in last year due to injuries.
WAKNESSES: Questions revolve around after the loss of Ethan Roth and Jacob Headlee, now playing at USD.
TOP RETURNERS: QB Hunter Headlee (Jr., 6-0, 190); RB Jack Anderson (Jr., 5-9, 173); G/LB Gage Anderson (Sr., 6-1, 225); LB Logan Warzecha (Jr., 6-1, 180).
OUTLOOK: The Tigers are going to have to rely on depth this season to replace starpower. Harrisburg graduated three defenders who will continue playing in college, so the defense will have to come together quickly. Headlee’s progression will be the biggest indicator of the team’s success after his first full offseason as the starting quarterback.
OPENER: Aug. 27 at Mitchell, 7 p.m.