GIBSON CITY -- During his team's first week of fall practice, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley head football coach Mike Allen says his latest retooling project has been a work in progress.
"We've had some great practices, and we've had some that weren't as good -- a lot of early learning mistakes that are typical when you are filling so many spots from the previous year," Allen said. "But the guys are working very hard and picking things up quickly. We're excited about what they've done so far and look forward to what they're going to accomplish with their work ethic and their abilities."
There is a lot to retool. After winning its second consecutive IHSA Class 2A state championship last November, GCMS said goodbye to 17 seniors, including some who are playing ball at the collegiate level.
"Those guys will always be remembered for what they accomplished when they were here, but we have to move forward," Allen said. "This is the 2019 team, so we have to put all our focus on them. Hopefully, those guys learned from watching the last several years. It's their time to take over and carry on the tradition here."
Senior Cade Elliott is getting the nod as GCMS's starting quarterback. He replaces Nathan Garard, who is playing at Eureka College this fall after passing for 1,363 yards and 13 touchdowns last year for the Falcons.
As GCMS's backup quarterback last year, Elliott had one pass completion for 13 yards. He also had a 5.52 earned-run average with eight strikeouts through 6 1/3 innings as he pitched for the Falcons' baseball team last spring.
"He's doing very well," Allen said. "He's still transitioning from the baseball throw to a football throw, but his mechanics are coming along. He's getting better every day, and his leadership with the offense has been outstanding up to this point. He's taking control and running the huddle like a quarterback should. He's making the most of his opportunity this year."
For the second year in a row, GCMS's rushing attack will need to retool after losing a 1,000-yard rusher to graduation as Jared Trantina -- who rushed for 1,678 yards and 34 touchdowns -- will join 2018 GCMS graduate, and fellow standout running back, Mitch McNutt at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Payton Kean was the Falcons' starting fullback last year. He returns for his senior season after rushing for 449 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
"He had an outstanding season. He was an incredible blocker," Allen said. "He's going to be called on to run the ball a little more this year."
Sophomore Aidan Laughery is getting a look at tailback after running for 381 yards and five touchdowns last season. Laughery was also a four-time state medalist for GCMS's track and field team last spring.
"To have that speed and power in the backfield is something we really like," Allen said.
Daniel Jones, who started at wingback for the Falcons last season, returns for his senior season. Junior Isaiah Chatman had 283 rushing yards for GCMS last year.
Fellow junior Nathan Kallal may also get some carries.
"We have a lot of guys who can bring a lot of things to the table," Allen said. "Hopefully, with those other guys who can come in and give (Kean and Laughery) a breather, or vice versa, we'll keep some fresh backs on the field."
The Falcons' backfield will run behind an offensive line that returns two senior starters from last year -- Jordan Lee and Keegan Kutemeier.
Kutemeier started at both the center and the . Allen expects him to be a two-way starter against this year.
"He's going to look to be the same this year for us," Allen said.
Along with Lee, Kutemeier will also be joined on the offensive and defensive lines by some newcomers, as two-way starter Hayden Workman, who had 14 1/2 tackles for loss of yards last year, is now playing for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Defensive starter Bryce Barnes, the team's leader in tackles who also had eight sacks last year, is with the University of Illinois.
Senior Jordan Blake, sophomore Markus Miguel, senior Alex Meece and juniors Gavin Workman and Aaron Spears are vying for lineman spots.
"We have a lot of guys who can fight for those positions right now," Allen said. "The line is strong. We're not as tall and big as we've been, but we're very strong and quick up front, so we're going to have to take advantage of that."
The GCMS defense yielded just 72 points in 14 games last year. The Falcons lost nine defensive starters to graduation, including Illinois Wesleyan-bound linebacker Austin Spiller, who had 36 tackles and six interceptions last year, and safety Lane Short, who is joining Garard at Eureka College. Josh Bleich is playing at McKendree after playing a defensive role for GCMS last year.
Despite the loss of starters, Allen said he still expects the defense to thrive under Chad Augspurger, who has been GCMS's defensive coordinator since 2015.
"Coach Augspurger is an incredible defensive coordinator and an incredible football coach. Since he's been here, he has put schemes in place and has those kids prepared. He has those guys excited to play defense, so they work their butts off for him to be as good as they have been," Allen said.
"I think coach Augspurger will have those guys ready. He'll have a scheme ready for every game. They'll be well-prepared. That's part of the battle -- coming into a game prepared, and he has our kids prepared for that. I think our defense will still be aggressive and still be stingy. That's a reflection of his coaching style."
Chatman and Jones are expected to play big roles on defense, and senior Colby Taylor is going to get some opportunities as well. Sophomore Brandon Mueller is along expected to get some playing time on defense, along with fellow seniors Spencer Meenen, Darin Bauer, Meece and Blake.
"(Blake's) a big kid for us," Allen said. "He has good, quick feet. He's a kid we're hoping will have an outstanding year for us."
Senior linebacker Ethan Duke could play a role as well.
"He's fighting his butt off and has worked so hard this summer," Allen said. "It's been a lot of fun to see who's working knowing that there's a lot of spots open. It's been fun to watch the competition and people really stepping up and pushing themselves in the weight room."
The Falcons are also replacing a receiving duo -- Barnes and Ryland Holt, who is playing basketball at Minnesota State-Mankato -- that produced a combined 49 catches for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Taylor and Meenen will be among receivers looking to catch some passes for GCMS.
"We have some guys to look at. Without having full pads on, we haven't been able to see who's going to be the best stock blocker," Allen said. "In our offense, we want to know who can block, also. Once we get the pads on, that's going to be something that'll help determine who's going to get more playing time in that position."
Chatman and junior Noah Nugent may receive some passes as well.
"(Noah's) got outstanding hands," Allen said. "He's going to get a lot of playing time out there."
Ben Freehill, who is kicking at Oklahoma State, had 79 extra points and five field goals last year.
Jones, Mueller and junior Dallas Whelchel are getting a tryout for the placekicker position.
"We're still finding that one out," Allen said. "We're looking for that."
Senior Nick Culler will handle the punting duties.
"Nick Culler is an outstanding punter," Allen said.
Though there are several new players and new roles, Allen -- who is entering his 19th season as head coach -- said his team is handling the expectations that come with playing for a two-time state champion.
"They're handling it very well. The expectations are high, but these guys are taking it one day at a time and saying this is our time to shine. The seniors have been waiting to be the top dogs, and they've worked hard and prepared for this year. They're going to give it everything they have. Their attitudes have been wonderful," Allen said.
"The competition is great at camp. Everybody's fighting for positions. That's been the fun part. When you can have the competition at practice and make it competitive and keep pushing each other, it's bound to make a team better. They understand there's pressure out there, but they're not going to let it get to them."
The Falcons' bid for another state run begins with two games against Class 3A schools, each of which advanced to the second round of the playoffs last year.
Paxton-Buckley-Loda will travel to Gibson City to face GCMS in week one after finishing 7-4 last year. The Panthers will led by a new head coach in Josh Pritchard, which will provide an element of the unexpected for the Falcons.
"So that's tough," Allen said.
In week two, GCMS will host a Eureka team that finished 9-2 last year and will return several of its key players.
"Eureka is loaded," Allen said.
After facing Heyworth on the road, the Falcons will travel to Minonk to face a Fieldcrest team that reached the playoffs with a 5-5 record.
"Fieldcrest had an outstanding junior varsity team last year," Allen said.
The rest of GCMS's regular-season will play out as follows: vs. Fisher, at Tri-Valley, vs. LeRoy, vs. El Paso-Gridley and at Deer Creek-Mackinaw.
"There are a lot of things up in the air," Allen said. "In small-school football, who stays healthy and who makes the fewest mistakes is who's still surviving at the end of the season."