There’s no doubt that a lot is on the line for Wheaton Warrenville South this fall.
The offensive line, that is.
The Tigers graduated their best player, current Northwestern slotback Dan Vitale, and all 11 defensive starters from last year’s Class 7A state championship game. The one place WW South — No. 4 in the Sun-Times’ preseason Super 25 — has some experience is the O-line.
And coach Ron Muhitch has left no doubt what that means.
“The defense is doing everything they can,” senior right tackle Frank Garcia said. “They know there is a learning curve for them. Coach has said it’s on us [to carry the load early]. We take it as a good challenge. We love when he does that.”
Joining Garcia, who’s 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, up front are right guard Ryan McCarthy (6-2, 230), center Rich Metzger (6-1, 290), left guard Joe Kirsch (6-1, 290) and left tackle Kyle Joyce (6-5, 255).
Metzger, Joyce, McCarthy and Garcia all started last year along with current senior Hollis Henry, who has been moved to the defensive line. Kirsch did see considerable time, though, as the third guard.
Those veterans will be blocking for junior quarterback Ryan Graham, who is coming off an unusual season and offseason. Graham split time last year with then-senior Thaddeus Amstrong, throwing for 243 yards and two touchdowns and running for 215 yards. But he also was slowed by injury.
Over the summer, Graham and move-in Casey Paraday competed for the job. But Paraday has since moved again, this time out of the district, allowing Graham to settle in as the starter.
“He’s much improved,” Muhitch said of Graham. “Worked hard on his throwing action and his motion. He’s still that runner, he’s a dual-threat quarterback.”
Another threat is senior receiver Corey Davis (6-3, 195), “my No. 1 athlete on the team,” according to Muhitch. “He has the potential to do some amazing stuff,” Garcia said.
Brian Welch (6-6, 230), a tight end drawing Ivy League interest, will also be a factor in the passing game.
Senior Brandon Adams and Ben Jackson, who moved in at the semester break last year, are candidates to carry the ball.
Though there are no starters back on defense, there is some talent, Muhitch believes. “I think our defensive line is going to be good,” he said, citing Henry, Charlie Hohnstein and Patrick Buoniconti.
The linebacking corps will be like last year’s offensive line: junior-dominated. Seniors Kevin Giltz and Ben Bach are players to watch in the secondary.
How good the new starters are should become apparent pretty quickly. The Tigers open the season at Glenbard West and then host Maine South, both perennial state powers. Then comes the DuPage Valley Conference schedule with the likes of 2011 state semifinalists Glenbard North and Naperville Central along with Wheaton North.
But playing good competition has been a way of life for WW South, which uses those tests to prepare for the postseason. It’s a successful formula: the Tigers have played in five state finals since 2006, winning three of them. Now they’ll try to put together another special season, even if the formula has to be tweaked a bit.
“I do believe when I replace 11 guys on defense, you can’t package that experience from 2011 and make them drink it and think you’re going to get the same results,” Muhitch said. “Our offense has to answer the bell more than we did last year.”
Garcia and his linemates are ready to do what they can in that regard.