There will be a lot of noticeable changes on the Wilsonville football team in 2017.
Most noticeably, the Wildcats open the year without nine graduated offensive starters, including first-team all-state wide receiver Harrison Steiger. On defense, the Cats will operate without graduated first-team all-state defensive back Tharren Blood.
One thing, however, remains the same — the Wildcats will be just as competitive as ever.
"I think we should be able to compete with the top teams," said Wilsonville coach Adam Guenther, who led his 2016 team to an 11-2 record, a Northwest Oregon Conference co-championship and a runner-up finish in the Class 5A state playoffs. "I expect our guys to be a playoff team again and then we want to make another long run."
And with a core built around all-state lineman Draco Bynum, all-state kicker Austin Kness and returning all-NWOC players Fernando Salazar, Cooper Mootz and A.J. Burkhead, that looks very much like an achievable goal.
This year's Wildcat offense will operate behind a new-look line led by Salazar (a 6-foot-1, 265-pound junior) at right guard, its lone returner and a second-team all-NWOC pick a year ago.
"He's a special kid," Guenther said. "He's a strong kid. He's got great feet and a 3.9 GPA."
Joining Salazar up front will be sophomore tackle Cole Douglas (5-10, 185), sophomore guard/center Kody Gray (6-0, 195), junior center Bridger Youd (6-0, 245), junior tackle Kalei Kauhi (6-1, 245), junior guard/tackle David Fukofuka (5-9, 280) and senior Jared Redmon (6-1, 225), who is expected back from injury by mid-season.
"We have a mix of both (speed and size). A bunch of them are 240 to 250 (pounds) or more, which is big, especially for us," Guenther said. "A couple of them are smaller, but they make up for it with speed and quickness."
Behind them, the Wildcats will start either sophomore Nathan Overholt (6-3, 175) — last year's varsity backup who threw for 464 yards and six touchdowns in 2016 — or sophomore Grant Irby (5-8, 150) at quarterback in place of the graduated Connor Neville. Guenther expressed confidence in both players' abilities to make the offense go.
"They're both athletes who have the potential to do a little of both — run and throw," Guenther said.
Joining them in the backfield will be junior fullbacks Andrew Gay (5-9, 175 with 272 yards and two TDs in '16), Manav Raghubansh (5-8, 185) and Carson Hull (6-2, 190), along with junior tailbacks Cooper Mootz (5-8, 170 with 500 yards and five TDs in '16) and Cade Edmondson (5-9, 165), a transfer from Horizon Christian.
Mootz "was our leading rusher as a sophomore," said Guenther, noting that Mootz had open heart surgery after the '16 season but played lacrosse last spring and looks better than ever. "His cuts are amazing."
At wide receiver, the Wildcats look to four newcomers, junior Jacob Herr (6-0, 165), junior Sam Westing (6-0, 170), sophomore Isaiah Haqq (5-9, 155) and junior Zack Rivers (5-11, 150), while junior Jonah Gomez (5-10, 150) and junior Trevor Antonson (5-8, 150) will go at slotback. At tight end, it will be Bynum (a 6-5, 255 senior University of Washington commit), along with junior Brenden Ertle (6-1, 190) and senior Logan Forsberg (5-10, 165).
Herr and Westing "are both tall and they both have great hands," Guenther said. "There's no burners, but they're all consistent and they run sharp routes."
Kness is back to handle the kicking duties after an all-state season in 2016, along with Burkhead (a 6-5, 220 senior).
"I think we'll be much more workmanlike this year, not as flashy," Guenther said. "But we'll take care of the ball and we'll take care of business."
Defensively, the Wildcats are much more settled, with eight players back with starting experience and 10 who played extensively.
That group is led by four strong returners along the line, with Hull and Burkhead (a second-team all-NWOC pick in '16 who's been offered a scholarship by Nevada) ready to go at defensive end, and Bynum and junior Caleb Baker (5-11, 240) back at tackle.
"They bring experience, size and speed — they're going to be something," Guenther said, adding that Bynum "is a special player. We don't get many players like him."
Also due for time on the line are Salazar — "You can't keep a big body like that off the field too much," Guenther said — Kauhi, Fukofuka and Gray.
At linebacker, the Wildcats will call on returning starters Gay, Raghubansh and junior Chance Hansen (5-10, 175), with backup help from Douglas, junior Justin Nguyen (5-10, 165) and junior Brandon Matthews (5-8, 160).
Sophomore Kevin Burke (5-10, 145) will go at free safety, with Kness, Antonson and Edmondson at cornerback. Both Burke and Antonson started in the 2016 state championship game.
"We're going to be formidable. If we do our jobs, good things will happen," Guenther said. "I'm hoping we can step up and give people a hard time."