BISMARCK — Mark Dodd doesn’t need a football game to see how much has changed at Bismarck-Henning.
All he needs is to look at his roster.
There are 60 squad members this season, 22 of whom are freshmen.
In his first year with the Blue Devils, 2007, Dodd was working with a group of 34 players, 18 of whom were freshmen.
“We see a trend,” Dodd said. “Kids buying into the weight room, trying to build a program, not just a team.”
The frustrations of his first season could pay dividends throughout this fall. To keep the program afloat, many ninth-graders were promoted to the varsity team two years ago.
“Our junior class is very experienced,” Dodd said. “Most of the kids in the junior class never played a freshman game and rarely played a JV game.”
While high school athletes rarely get the chance to play more than four years for a coach, several B-H juniors, however, are already in their fifth year under Dodd’s tutelage. Before he was hired as the varsity coach, he spent two seasons working with the district’s youth leagues.
Among the seventh-graders on Dodd’s undefeated team in 2005 were current linebacker Ross Darby, current tight end Dakota Patton and current guard Branden Smith.
Others in the Class of 2011 who are varsity veterans include cornerback Kyle Lamm and safety Matt LeCleir.
Senior quarterback Michael Grant returns for his third year as a starter. The backs who received a majority of last year’s carries have graduated, but they’ll be behind an experienced line.
The guard duo of Smith and senior Luke Thornsbrough will be one strength.
“They are so very quick,” Dodd said. “They might be the best tandem of guards I’ve had in 16 years of coaching.”
They will be flanked by Cody Longest, a returning starter, at center as well as Derek Davis, another returning starter, at tackle. The other tackle will either be Josh Kessler, who started last year as a freshman on defense, or senior Danny Golden, a transfer from Danville High School. At 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, Golden will add bulk and strength to the line.
A new cycle could start with the ballcarrying crew.
“We graduated three seniors and we could bring in three sophomores,” Dodd said.
Those poised for playing time include 10th-graders Reed Collins, at halfback, Adam Baker, at wingback, and Sam Shoaf, at fullback.
LeCleir and Darby could platoon as fullbacks.
“We have competition at every position,” Dodd said.
Sophomore Krystian Ingram is being groomed as the quarterback of the future. Sophomore Aaron Bell and junior Hunter Petersen, a second-year player, are other promising prospects in the backfield.
The offense is running smoother than in years past and is more sophisticated.
“When I was a sophomore, we didn’t have many plays because we couldn’t learn many plays,” Grant recalled. “This year, we’ve all played two or three years on varsity and we realize what we can do.”
With 16 lettermen being counted on as key contributors, Darby said, “expectations are through the roof. Our experience is going to help us out.”
Jesse Felix, Ingram and Lamm could headline the receiving corps.
Defensively, eight starters return and two newcomers will make a major impact on the front line. Joining Golden up front will be Morgan Supergan, a 6-2, 265-pound freshman.
Returning regulars are Patton and Thornsbrough at ends, Kessler at tackle, Collins, Darby and Smith at linebackers, LeCleir at strong safety and Grant at free safety.
Longest and senior Derek Davis will help provide what Dodd calls “a good rotation,” on the defensive front.
“Our defensive front seven will give people problems,” Dodd predicted. “They’re bigger, stronger and better.”
There’s no shortage of candidates in the secondary where Baker, Lamm and Petersen are contending with Tyler Russell and Chase Whorrall.
Thornsbrough is anxious to get the season started. Bismarck-Henning opens its 2009 season at home on Friday against St. Thomas More.
“We’re a little older now and we’re all grown up,” Thornsbrough said. “We’ve been practicing really well.”
Patton senses a strong camaraderie within the team.
“We’re more close-knit, like a family now,” he said. “We all trust each other and we all get along with each other.”
Dodd has staggered practices during the preseason so that junior Ian Park, who is also playing soccer, could meet the IHSA practice requirements to be eligible for Game 1.
Park is expected to handle the punting and placekicking duties and Dodd said, “I’m confident he can win games for us.”
The Blue Devils are at that point he had hoped to see what he took over the program.
“We’re getting close to where we’ll be able to compete every week,” he said. “Whether we can beat the good teams, I don’t know if we’re there yet.”
B-H enters the year with a four-game winning streak. The potential perhaps helped promote participation during the summer camps.
“For the first time ever, in 16 years, we had all the key kids in camp every day,” Dodd said. “That, to me, was a sign maybe we’re ready to turn the corner.”