ELKHART — This is the year Josh Shattuck has been building for at Elkhart Central.
Now the Blue Blazers have to prove it on the football field.
With his top running back returning, a Division I defensive end prospect and their entire offensive line back, the Blazers should be one of the best teams in the Northern Indiana Conference in 2019 after a 6-6 final record in 2018.
"We have a lot of key guys back, so it will be a matter of us doing a lot of the little things well,'' Shattuck said. "We lost six games last season and in five of them we had the ball inside the 30 when time ran out trying to win the game. It was frustrating, but hopefully we've grown from that.''
The offense starts with the return to health of senior Mark Brownlee, who rushed for 1,547 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, despite missing all or most of three games after suffering a high ankle sprain against Penn in week 8. The Ball State commit averaged 7.1 yards-per-carry on the year, but was limited in Central's loss to Concord in the sectional title game.
Senior quarterback Isaiah Chandler also returns for Central after starting 10 games last season and throwing for 1,409 yards and seven touchdowns.
Wide receiver is one of the questions marks for Shattuck, after the team's top three receivers – including honorable mention all-stater Kyran Pearson – graduated. Slot receiver Dominic Davis is the lone returnee at receiver, while Rod Ballard, Jacob Hold, Vinny Ambrose and DuMarrion Williams are all looking for playing time on the outside.
"We know we can't line-up and hand the ball to Mark 30 times a game,'' Shattuck said. "We're going to have to be able to throw the ball some to loosen up the defense and give Mark some room to run. Finding ways to get Davis the ball in space will also be important for our offense this year.''
The offensive line is strong enough that Shattuck was able to move Bobby Kiefer from guard to a H-Back-tight end position. Sea Davis, Jonathan Decker, Cory Warlick, Sean Holman and Jacob Sommer all have starting experience and return on the offensive line.
But while the offense has a number of returnees, Shattuck is adamant that his defense is the strength of this Central team.
"By far, the defense should be the focal point of this team,'' Shattuck admitted. "There are times when our offense is struggling in a scrimmage and I have to remind myself that there is a Division I defensive end and a number of top kids on that side of the ball.''
That defensive end is junior Rodney McGraw, who has packed on 25 points and is now listed at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds. He's received offers from Indiana, Purdue and Ball State, while also attracting attention from the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. Holman and Jake Smith return on the defensive line, while Decker is also a candidate in the middle.
Will Bunch, who has not played the last two seasons, has looked strong at a linebacker spot, while Drew Stimac is back at linebacker. Junior Vinny Ambrose, who had 104 tackles from his safety spot last season, returns, as does Terrence Williams, DuMarrion Williams and Kennath Dennis in a strong defensive backfield.
Shattuck has three players battling to replace All-NIC kicker Brian Mullins, including senior soccer player Bryan Ramirez. Elijah Harris and Perdro Velasquez are also in the kicking mix.
"These guys are anxious to take the next step,'' Shattuck said. "We have good talent, now it's a matter of getting everything to fit together so we can have some success. But the real key is, flipping the script on those close games and earning some tough wins.''
The Blazers will host the final Mangy Lion game against Elkhart Memorial on Aug. 23. They'll also host NIC rivals Mishawaka and New Prairie later in the year.
In an odd twist, all nine of Elkhart Central's regular season games will be played on field turf this season. However, sectional rivals Concord, Memorial and Mishawaka all play on grass.
2019: 6-6 (1-4 NIC North)
Aug. 23: Elkhart Memorial
Aug. 30: at Goshen
Sept. 6: Jimtown
Sept. 13: Benton Harboer
Sept. 20: at SB St. Joseph (C)
Sept. 27: Mishawaka (C)
Oct. 4: at SB Adams (C)
Oct. 11: at Penn (C)
Oct. 18: New Prairie (C)