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With a year of experience in the fold, the Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy football team will still be green, but second-year head coach Dan Larlham and his staff will have the Royals playing with pride, passion, and plenty of toughness.
Still searching for his first win, Larlham returns around 15 lettermen from last year, while navigating through a 42-member roster.
The former Walsh Jesuit star realizes that solid health and developing depth will be a key for a roster that includes 17 freshmen and just four seniors.
"We return about five or six starters on both sides of the ball," Larlham noted. "A lot of young guys played last year."
Larlham is excited about this season and the future as he helps develop young athletes on and off the gridiron.
CVCA opens the season Aug. 26 at home against Woodridge in non-league play at Royals Stadium.
"We have a small roster, but the kids that love football are all there," Larlham said. "We just need more kids that love football at CVCA. I am excited for our toughness."
Joining Larlham on the coaching staff are Paul Muklewicz (offensive coordinator, quarterbacks), David Robinson (receivers, cornerbacks, special teams), Marc Benedict (running backs, linebackers, special teams), James Robertson (both lines), Ralph Bloom (both lines), Anthony Rozum (safeties, running backs) and Mike Golub (running backs, safeties).
Larlham is the team's defensive coordinator and handles the offensive line.
"I think our kids have really adjusted well to the new staff," he said.
In upcoming non-league action, the Royals play Sept. 2 at Campbell Memorial and play at Pepper Pike Orange Sept. 9.
The Royals will run a gap-scheme spread offense this fall as CVCA looks for consistency and playmakers. Larlham's club can't afford turnovers.
CVCA will likely have its offense directed by two quarterbacks this season. They are both young -- sophomore Brock Simmons and junior Elijah Payne.
"Brock Simmons will start, but will be challenged by Payne," pointed out the mentor.
Payne, a transfer from Manchester where he was the backup last year to Mason Nist, won't be eligible to start play until Week 6. Payne is 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds.
Simmons (6-2, 175) is also a transfer -- from Trinity Catholic High in Ocala, Fla.
"I think that Simmons has owned his leadership at the position along with Elijah," noted the coach.
"Brock needs to own the offense, taking what the (opposing) defense gives him," added Larlham. "It is what our offense is built around. The gap-scheme spread can be physical and opportunistic."
Freshman Peyton Beebe is another QB on the roster.
CVCA will miss the running and versatility of graduated RB Matt Decipeda, who is now at Grove City (Pa.) College along with several other former Royals. He ran for 749 yards and four touchdowns a year ago.
This fall, the running back spot may be by committee depending on the game and defensive roles.
According to Larlham, seniors Jay Woodlee (5-11, 175), junior Jack Atwood (5-9, 165), and sophomore Jordan Decatur (5-9, 155) will split carries.
Last fall, Woodlee ran 19 times for 71 yards and was a threat as a receiver out of the backfield with 13 catches for 105 yards and one TD. Atwood had five carries.
The most experienced playmaker returning on offense is sophomore wide receiver Tre Tucker.
Tucker (5-9, 155) is an all-purpose threat as he can catch the ball, run with it and do damage in the return game.
"Tre returns with the most experience," said Larlham. "Junior Ryan Kovar should have a good year as a first year starter for us."
Last fall, Tucker led CVCA with 22 catches for 215 yards. He also ran 10 times for 51 yards and a TD.
Kovar (6-1, 165) is a solid target with size while junior Isaac Strausser (5-11, 160) had two catches last year for 15 yards as a sub. Other receivers will surface for CVCA.
Senior Pat Butler is a veteran starter on the offensive line and will be stationed at right tackle. Butler (6-2, 225) is a fixture.
"Pat will anchor the right side at tackle," said Larlham.
Juniors Ben Watterson (5-11, 185) and Braydon Roberts (6-2, 240) will play key roles. A former fullback, Watterson is the center while Roberts hopes to show his promise after missing 2015.
"Watterson will hold things down playing a new position at center while Roberts should have a good year after returning from injury all of last year,' said the coach.
Other veterans with program experience in the trenches are senior Matt Johnson, junior Pat Kearney, and sophomore Jacob Brighton. Dwayne Reed is a first-year senior.
The Royals will again feature a 4-2-5 set on the defensive end. CVCA will be young.
Primary returnees include Watterson (linebacker), Butler (tackle), sophomore Noah Bishop (DE), and Tucker (cornerback).
Larlham likes how his defensive from is shaping up with a strong mix of experience and youth.
This cast includes Butler, Bishop, junior Terrell Hicks and freshman Breslin Walker.
"Walker has been a bright spot at tackle so far, as has returning starter Pat Butler and returning starter Noah Bishop is a very athletic DE," explained the mentor.
"Hicks could dominate as soon as he figures things out," he added, of the former tight end who could see action on the offensive line as well.
Others with some program experience are Johnson, Kearney, and Brighton. Reed adds depth.
CVCA's staff will be looking for athletes at linebacker and in the secondary.
The Royals secondary will be a key. CVCA's deep backs will be asked to do a lot -- such as stop the passing game, but also help with run support with athletes who can roam the field.
Tucker returns as a corner and Woodlee has experience as well. Atwood has some experience.
"Tre (Tucker) should have a great year and Woodlee will play free safety and should shore up our back end," Larlham said.
Freshman Chris DeLucia is the new placekicker while Kovar has some experience as a punter.
"DeLucia will learn the ropes at kicker this year," said Larlham. "We are excited to see him improve throughout the year."
The return game is exciting as Tucker is a threat, along with Jacob Decatur, Jordan Decatur, and Woodlee.
Tucker had a kickoff return for a TD last fall while Jacob Decatur averaged 58.3 all-purpose yards a game, based on his returns of kicks and punts.
Other key juniors on the roster include DB-WR Daniel Griffith, LB-RB Joe Morales, and LB-RB Dylan Nichols.