BRIDGEPORT - With only three lettermen lost to graduation, things are looking up for Bridgeport.
"We've got eight starters back on each side of the ball," said veteran coach Rudy Vavrock, who is entering his 11th season as the Bulldogs leader. "We've got a lot of guys who gained some valuable playing experience last season, so we'll find out early on what we've got."
Gone from the program are Colin Cooper, Dallas Fields and Michael Jaworski.
A total of 17 lettermen return to the fold after a 2-8 mark, with four looking to earn their fourth letters. They are seniors Colt Charlton (5-foot-10, 155 pounds), Brandon Brown (6-0, 260), Brad Tomolonis (5-9, 190) and Bailey Sieber (6-1, 260).
Other seniors are foreign exchange student Benjamin Behnke (5-10, 185) from Denmark, Bellaire transfer Dakota Gabel (5-9, 185), Ian Hammer (5-8, 140) and Thomas Orth (5-10, 145).
Hammer and Orth are two-year letterwinners.
Vavrock noted that Gabel could be ineligible for the first five games because of the transfer.
Two-year letterwinners are juniors Bradley Pritchett (5-10, 160), Q.J. Williams (6-0, 180), Bailey McGrath (5-9, 185), Jacob Ray (5-5, 145), Patrick Britton (5-9, 165), Jared Heslop (6-0, 260), Chance Watson (5-11, 170) and Matthew Weed (6-0, 250).
Rounding out the returning lettermen are sophomores Carlos Kusic (5-11, 180), Tyus Harris (5-11, 220) and Dylan Bennett (5-9, 210).
Offensively, Bridgeport will throw the ball more this year than in the past.
"We're going to spread people out a little more," Vavrock said. "We've got three pretty good athletes vying for the quarterback spot, so we'll see what happens."
He was referring to McGrath, the returning starter, QJ Williams and Kusic.
"All three are really good athletes," Vavrock continued. "Bailey probably has the early edge due to his experience, but whatever one doesn't earn the starting job will be shifted to wide receiver.
"QJ is one of the better athletes on our team. He and Carlos will make good-sized wide receivers."
McGrath completed 43 of 97 attempts last fall for 456 yards and seven touchdowns. However, he was picked off 11 times. Williams attempted seven passes last season, completing one for 6 yards.
Throwing the ball will be out of necessity more than anything, Vavrock said.
"We don't have that dominating running back, but we do have a couple of kids with good speed," he said. "So, we'll spread the defenses out and take what they give us."
Taking the majority of the handoffs will be Pritchett and Britton.
"Both Bradley and Patrick (who was limited by injury in camp) saw action last year and both played well, but were injured some, as well," Vavrock added.
Williams led all Bulldogs in rushing with 52 carries for 150 yards and a touchdown. McGrath collected 140 and a TD on 53 carries, while Pritchett had 25 carries for 139. He also ran for 102 yards and a TD on half-dozen carries as a freshman. Britton checked in at 121 yards and two scores on 23 carries.
Ray will also get some carries, while Hammer and Behnke are also battling for playing time in the backfield.
When the Bulldogs go to the airways, Charlton will be the primary target from his wideout spot. He caught three passes for 32 yards, but one went for a touchdown.
"Colt is a returning starter and we will look to get the ball in his hands as much as we can," Vavrock said. "QJ and Carlos will also get a lot of reps out there."
Williams has seven career receptions for 90 yards and two scores, while Britton has landed three passes for 22 yards.
Other receivers are Orth and Gabel; junior James Kabala (5-9, 180); and freshmen Eli Williams (5-9, 130), Thomas Coyne (5-9, 140) and Emilio Saldana (5-10, 140).
Most of Bridgeport's early success will depend upon the offensive line as three starters are back in Sieber, Brown and Heslop.
"Sieber and Brown give us two big tackles," Vavrock said. "Both are around the 260-pound mark. Tomolonis is a pretty good athlete and a wrestler. He's got good size for a guard.
"Those three guys have been around for three seasons, so we're going to count on them for a lot, especially early on.''
Others expected to start in the trenches are Harris at the other guard, and Heslop at center.
Sophomore Daniel Albus (5-9, 190) is pushing Heslop for the center spot, while Weed and Bennett will also get plenty of playing time at the tackle slots. Watson will be the first guard off the bench. Also in the hunt are freshmen Matt Herink (5-11, 250) and Jace Johnston (5-10, 170), along with sophomore Niko Bruney, who transferred from Martins Ferry and will likely have to sit out five games, according to Vavrock.
Defensively, the Bulldogs will continue to go with their 4-3 alignment with Britton anchoring the unit from his middle linebacker spot
"He started all 10 games there for us last season," Vavrock recalled. "He's a hard-nosed kid."
Albus will be his backup.
On the outside, Pritchett, Tomolonis, Ray and Behnke will get the majority of playing time.
Sieber, Brown and Harris will rotate in and out on the interior of the defensive line, while Watson and Weed will man the end positions.
Other down linemen are Heslop, Bruney, Bennett, Johnston and Herink.
Holding down the corner spots are McGrath and Charlton, with QJ Williams and Kusic manning the safeties.
Other defensive backs are Coyne, Eli Williams, Saldana, Gabel, Hammer, Kabala and Orth.
"A lot of the same names as on offense, but at a school of our size, you're going to have that," Vavrock said.
Special teams seem to be in good hands with McGrath back to kick off and handle the placements. He had 15 PATs as a freshman. Bruney, who kicked five extra points in one game for the Purple Riders last season, is also in contention. Williams, or McGrath, will also handle the punting chores.
As far as the schedule goes, two new opponents greet the Bulldogs in the first three weeks. Columbiana, a Division VI program, will serve as the opening opponent on Saturday. The Clippers will invade Bill Jobko Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
"That will be a good test for us," Vavrock said. "They always have a pretty good team."
Other home games are with Conotton Valley, Madonna, River and Cameron. Road trips are to Frontier, Beallsville and Shadyside.
The Bulldogs coaching staff is pretty much the same as 2012, with the exception of new additions Zac Melton and Tom Bruney. The holdovers include Ty Platt, Dustin Lipperman, Sylvester Beard.
"The familiarity really helps," Vavrock said.
Benjamin Behnke, Colt Charlton, Dakota Gabel, Ian Hammer, Brandon Brown, Brad Tomolonis, Bailey Sieber and Thomas Orth.
Bradley Pritchett, QJ Williams, Bailey McGrath, Jacob Ray, Patrick Britton, James Kabala, Jared Heslop, Chance Watson and Matt Weed.
Carlos Kusic, Daniel Albus, Tyus Harris, Niko Bruney and Dylan Bennett.
Thomas Coyne, Eli Williams, Emilio Saldana, Jace Johnston and Matt Herink.