DANVILLE – Cloaked in the late-July humidity, faced with timed bear crawls and sprints and crab walks, it appeared as if the Danville High School football team had all but forgotten last November’s state semifinal run.
That was by design.
“Too many elephant ears and candy corns… it’s time to work off all that junk you ate at the fair last week,” head coach Ed Honabarger grumbled, as his team trudged through a brutal conditioning segment to wrap up the first official day of practice.
Some players ran. Others dragged. All finished.
As seemingly harsh as it was necessary, the practice was also routine. This is Honabarger’s 15th season at Danville and the Blue Devils have made the state semifinals two out of the last three years. They’ve made the playoffs seven straight years. If anyone knows about how to refocus a team after a big season, it’s Honabarger.
“Practices have been hard,” senior lineman Dylan Wilson said last week. “I mean, if he’s not hard on us then he’s not really doing his job, I guess.”
The Blue Devils are coming off a 12-2 season in which they tied Highland for the Knox Morrow Athletic Conference championship, advancing to the state semifinals before falling to Cuyahoga Heights at Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. But there are few visible remnants of last year’s glory to be found on the team’s practice field, and fewer to be found in the message Honabarger has driven home to his team this offseason: This is a new team, a new year.
Given the program's recent success, however, Honabarger knows that Danville will be everyone's biggest game in 2018. He's used to that.
“The bullseye’s on our back, and that’s the way we like it. That’s the way it typically is,” said Honabarger, who wore a 'Don't Hate the Devils, Hate the Game' shirt to the team's first practice this year.
“We’ve had some great success here through the 105 years of football, and especially the last 20 years, we’ve had a nice run. People like to play Danville, people like to beat Danville. So we’ve gotta be ready every week, and that’s always a challenge. We’ve got to sort of play with that chip on our shoulder.”
The Blue Devils will be considerably younger this year, having lost nine seniors from last year’s team to graduation. That list includes three all-state honorees: quarterback Skyler Durbin, wide receiver Brice Berger and defensive lineman Marshall Stull. Durbin started the last two years and played a considerable amount his sophomore year, leading the KMAC in passing yards last season with 3,312 and touchdowns with 27.
Durbin completed 64 percent of his passes and threw just seven interceptions in 14 games. He was also the team’s leading rusher, scrambling for 1,137 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Berger led the team with 142 tackles last year at linebacker, while also tallying eight sacks. Stull had 120 tackles and nine sacks last season on the defensive line.
The Blue Devils also graduated first-team All-KMAC offensive lineman Drew Printz, secondary receiving target and defensive back Tyler Mickley and many others.
Danville will also bring back quite a few key pieces, however.
Durbin’s number one receiving target, Corbin Hazen, will enter his senior year. Hazen caught 78 passes for 1,089 yards and six touchdowns last year, earning first-team All-KMAC honors. He also tallied 112 tackles last season at defensive back.
Danville will welcome back senior Chris Greenawalt, the starting running back who rushed for 661 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. He also led the team in sacks (13) and placed second in tackles (127) at defensive end.
Both Dylan and Brad Wilson will return to the offensive and defensive lines in 2018. Dylan was named second-team All-KMAC on the defensive line last year, recording 102 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Honabarger said that after three weeks of practice, things are starting to piece together for the defending conference co-champs.
“We feel our defensive line is a strength. We have several guys returning there,” said Honabarger, who also noted that the defensive secondary has come along nicely this preseason. “We have three offensive linemen returning and a couple receivers and Chris Greenawalt at running back. So we’ve got some pieces here and there, now we’ve just gotta get everybody to fit in the other spots and mold together.”
The biggest challenge this season will be replacing Durbin, whose experience allowed the Blue Devils to go deep into their playbook if need be. Senior Dalton David and junior Charlie Cook have been battling for the starting quarterback spot this offseason; Cook threw five passes last year, David threw none.
“We’ve gotta be more basic this year, especially right now. Grooming a first-year starter quarterback, we can’t be as advanced,” Honabarger said. “Skyler started for two years and got to play a lot as a sophomore because we had a lot of big leads, so we got him in there. So you know, we’ve gotta cut down on formations, cut down on plays and just ease everybody into things.”
Despite the loss of several all-state players from last year’s roster, Greenawalt believes this year’s seniors will be able to fill the leadership void.
“Well actually, a lot of the seniors that were freshmen four years ago, we all started,” Greenawalt said. “So I mean, it’s not a big change, but it’s a big responsibility.”
Honabarger and the Blue Devils foresee the KMAC being “real competitive” again this year, with East Knox and Highland reloading after impressive 2017 seasons.
“I think Highland and East Knox have the most kids back, so obviously I think they’re frontrunners,” said Honabarger, who has won three straight conference championships between the KMAC and Mid-Buckeye Conference.
“I think all the rest of us are sort of going to be a week-by-week, who can stay healthy, who can get on a roll and maybe challenge one of those other two. But they should be the frontrunners for right now.”
Danville will be tested early this season with two tough, non-conference road games in weeks one and two – at Lucas and at Tiffin Calvert, respectively. Both were playoff teams last season, as Lucas went 8-3 and Calvert went 8-4.
The Blue Devils will then face Garaway, a 5-5 team they beat by just three points last year, which Wilson said taught the team a lesson in the process.
“You can’t go into a game big-headed. I think that’s how we felt,” Wilson said. “We didn’t come back until the fourth quarter, and that was a rough game. We just can’t go into games big-headed, just go out there and play.”
They will then face the KMAC gauntlet – Highland in week four, Northmor in week five and then their backyard rival, East Knox, in week 10.
Just as Honabarger has conditioned his team to move on from last year’s success, he’s also tried to level expectations for the 2018 season. The goal is still the same – to win a second straight KMAC title and earn an eighth straight playoff bid – but in a season with so much roster turnover, the veteran coach knows it will be a process.
“We just want to go out and play hard and compete. Whatever happens, happens. It’s just one of those things you can never expect; you don’t expect to go to the final four,” Honabarger said. “You try to not to go oh-for. You want to try to fall somewhere in between. You want your kids to stay healthy, have a good time, play hard, learn as they go.”
Danville will kick off the 2018 season at Lucas on August 24. The Blue Devils will host Garaway in their home opener on September 7.