HANNIBAL - As Mike Flannery prepares for his 11th season as the head coach at River, he's had many people approach him about the prospects of the 2015 campaign and beyond.
He agrees that those could be very strong seasons for the Pilots.
However, there's one minor issue.
The Pilots are preparing for 2014 and what could lie ahead in the future, has little to do with what's in store for this season.
"There are going to be a lot of growing pains, but we have some kids who have experience and we're certainly not going to throw in the towel on this season," Flannery said.
After losing five straight games to start 2013, the Pilots closed with victories in four of their final five.
However, graduation claimed Brett Rosen, Brandon Reusser, Dakota Dunn, Jordan Sapp, Bryce Cross, Freddie Muntz, Cody Binni, Duane Necessary and Bailey Reusser.
The Pilots roster features 34 players and of those, 25 are sophomores or freshmen.
"Depth could be an issue like it is for most schools in the Ohio Valley, but I am really high on this sophomore class," Flannery said. "There are kids who are really working in that group. It's been fun watching them grow. We like a few of our freshmen, but they're still freshmen. But, there's a handful of them, who if they learn the offense, could get some playing time."
Flannery, who has always been known as an offensive mastermind, plans on working to achieve as close to an offensive balance as possible.
"We've always been a 50-50 football team," Flannery said of the balance between run and pass. "Right now we're missing the guys who graduated, but it is what it is and we're going to do what we can. We've experimented with some things this summer and it still comes down to getting your athletes the ball and let them rise to the top."
The Pilots are "going to a bit of a different look" on offense, according to their head coach.
"Moving the ball offensively concerns me because we don't have a Jordan Sapp or Bryce Cross," Flannery said.
However, the maturation of the skill players could prove to be the biggest test to that.
The quarterback spot has been a battle between incumbent starter Joey Flannery (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) and talented freshman Lukas Isaly (5-9, 150).
Flannery has been slowed some during the summer with an injury. Last season, in his first campaign as the starter, the son of the head coach threw for 747 yards, completing 68 of 141 passes including four touchdowns.
Isaly saw a bulk of the workload during the Pilots' passing scrimmages this summer because of the injury Flannery has been dealing with.
If Isaly doesn't win the quarterback job, Flannery admits he's going to be on the field in some capacity.
"He's an athlete," Flannery said. "Whether he's on offense or defense, he's going to be a good player and he's going to see plenty of action."
Flannery and his staff spent most of their two-a-day practices searching for backfield depth. Senior Cole Isaly (5-9, 165) is slated to line up at the H-back spot and was a jack-of-all-trades last season.
Sophomore Dakota Smith (5-8, 140) has caught the coaching staff's attention because of his work ethic in the offseason.
"In the eight months since last season ended, Dakota has really made himself a better athlete," Flannery said. "He built his body up and he's one of those guys we're going to look to to be one of those running backs."
Senior Loren Thomas is seeking his third letter and could see an increase in carries as well.
Also vying for time are sophomore Cody Saksa (5-9, 175) and freshman Aiden Taylor (5-6, 144).
"We're used to having a lot of depth at running back, but we just don't have that one guy who is standing out and being that guy," Flannery said. "We've got some ideas of guys who are capable of doing (the job), but I just hope we're right."
Flannery is high on his wide receiver corps, too.
Senior Brok Cross (6-1, 180) is the leader of the group as he caught 17 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown last season. Junior Craig Hupp (6-1, 172) lettered a season ago and is expected to take on a much bigger role in the offense. Junior C.J. Honeycutt (6-1, 185) also saw plenty of action last season.
"Those are three guys who are going to catch a lot of passes if we decide to throw the ball this year," Flannery said.
Flannery also spoke highly of sophomore Braden Whetsell (5-9, 155). He, too, lettered last season.
Other receivers listed on the roster are senior Wes Smith (6-0, 160), freshmen Grant Williams (5-7, 112), Dillon Grimes (5-10, 125), Drew Wagnild (5-9, 155), Drew Dietz (6-0, 170) and Payton VanCamp (5-11, 145).
One of the biggest keys to any football team - at any level - is always offensive line play. The Pilots are trying to replace four of their five starters in the trenches.
Junior Zac Smith (6-0, 225) is the lone returning starter and he'll anchor the line at the center spot.
"After Zac, everything else has been open for competition," Flannery said. "We've liked how our young kids have progressed, they've gotten stronger, bigger and worked hard all summer. But, they're still young."
Young could be an understatement when you consider Zac Smith and Tyce Felton (5-11, 190) are the only two junior linemen listed on the roster and there's nary a senior in the group. Sophomores Luke Matusik (6-0, 190) and Mason Ladyga (6-1, 210) have also been impressive and are expected to start along the line.
"We're going to build around Zac, Luke and Mason up front and go from there," Flannery said.
The other two spots have been a battle between sophomores Tucker Boggs (5-7, 160), Trey Isaly (5-11, 160), Collin Huffman (5-10, 220), Nathan Rainey (5-6, 180), Jake Dietrich (5-10, 195), Garett Greenlee (6-5, 255) and Broc Miracle (5-11, 250).
Freshman seeking playing time up front are Garrett Wilson (5-7, 160), Zac Talbot (5-6, 140), Derek West (5-10, 208) and Luc Baker (5-10, 240)
One of the Pilots' chief weapons is senior placekicker Colton Wright (6-1, 160). He will handle the placekicking and punting duties after connecting on 27 PATs and three field goals last season.
"His range is probably close to 35 or 40 yards this year, so if we can get in that area, we feel good about coming away with points," Flannery said.
Flannery thinks the defense could be stingy as it will employ a new scheme. He pointed out that Craig Mason, Eric Mason and Toby Willis are overseeing the defensive unit.
"I like what those guys are doing because it's going to be an aggressive defense," Flannery said. "It's a whole different philosophy than what we've been doing."
The defensive unit, which also had its fair share of question marks entering camp, will be led by Cole Isaly at a linebacker spot.
The secondary returns a pair of starters in Cross and Whetsell.
Cross picked off five passes and recorded 42 tackles last season.
Honeycutt is expected to move into a starting role in the secondary and Dakota Smith is ticketed for a linebacker job.
Craig Hupp is listed as a starter at one of the outside linebackers.
Along with defensive line, Ladyga is back at a tackle and Matusik is more of a hybrid defensive end who could shift into a linebacker spot as well.
"We feel really good about that group, but we're still searching for the other people," Flannery said.
"There could be some freshmen and sophomores jump into those other spots."
Lukas Isaly and Joey Flannery are both supplying depth in the secondary.
Coach Flannery also has been impressed with Boggs, Trey Isaly, Miracle and Huffman's work during the summer and expects them to see plenty of action on defense.
"Any kind of competition makes people better and we've had a lot of it during camp," Flannery said.
The schedule underwent a few minor changes. River, since it's no longer a member of the Pioneer Valley Conference, is no longer matching up with Fort Frye and Caldwell.
The annual opener against the Cadets has been replaced by a lengthy trip to Reedsville Eastern, which is located near Athens.
The Redskins, meanwhile, have been replaced by Paden City, a place Flannery was once the head coach.
"There's nothing light about the beginning of our schedule or the entire schedule, for that matter," Flannery said.
"We don't know anything about Reedsville Eastern, but we know that Bishop Donahue (in Week 2) put it to us last year. Then we go Monroe, Magnolia and Paden City, which is a senior-dominated team, so we have to be ready to go right away."
Along with the three defensive coaches, Flannery's coaching staff also includes Jim Bennett, Dean Caldwell, Clyde Hupp, Johnny Zola, Logan Binegar and Gene Schmidt.