A number of holes must be filled on this season's Whitnall football team, but one crucial unit will return intact — the offensive line.
"Our entire offensive line, plus our tight end, will be back, so we have plenty of experience there," said head coach Jeff Wallack, who guided the Falcons to a share of the Woodland Conference East Division crown with a 5-3 mark in 2012, his first season.
The group consists of senior Jake Burkard (6 feet, 3 inches and 270 pounds), senior Matt Bublitz (6-2, 264), senior Luke Bennett (5-10, 184), senior Nick Crivello (6-4, 237) and junior James Menden (6-0, 220).
Burkard and Bennett each earned first-team all-division honors last season.
Those five, along with senior tight end Michael Langenohl (6-2, 192), will provide the blocking and pass protection needed to keep the Falcons offense humming.
The quarterback who will be operating behind that line was still undetermined heading into this week, as senior Josh Stark (5-10, 170) and junior Tyler Merritt (5-10, 170) battled in training camp.
"We may not make the decision until game day (Friday)," Wallack said. "Every time we thought Merritt would emerge, Josh would give everything he could that day. They are identical in their skill sets, and both offer great leadership in the huddle."
Stark and Merritt will try to follow in the imposing footsteps of Joel Stave, now at Madison, and Zach Sutton, who passed for 2,406 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.
Wallack said the Falcons will continue to develop their running game behind senior Trevor Fuller (5-11, 170) and junior Nick Monty (5-10, 152), among others.
Catching the passes will be Langenohl and junior Michael Grim (6-3, 155), with the other spots open, the coach said.
The defense will be paced by senior linebacker Drake Ambroch (5-10, 214) and junior linebacker Michael Kremer (5-7, 175), who both made first-team all-division.
Other keys are junior defensive back Keanu Austin (5-8, 129) and senior back Tyler Regeth (6-0, 140).
"We struggled mightily on defense last season," Wallack said, "and that was definitely an emphasis in camp."
Wallack feels the team will improve this season just on the basis of being better acquainted with his system in his second year and thinks the Falcons can contend for the East Division title again, along with South Milwaukee.
Players to watch: Linebackers Michael Kremer and Drake Ambroch, both returning all-Woodland Conference East Division first-team selections, are expected to spearhead an improved defense.
Date to circle: Sept. 20, which is a home game against Woodland East preseason favorite South Milwaukee. This game could go a long way toward determining the East championship.
We say: The Falcons must break in a new quarterback this season, but the passing game always seems to be a strength. Whitnall's season will ride on improvement in the running game and on defense.
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