PAXTON -- Since he was hired as Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School's head football coach last May, Josh Pritchard said he has experienced a warm reception.
"I'm excited for PBL. I think PBL seems to be excited for me so far. I've enjoyed being here in the couple of months that I've been here," Pritchard said. "The support's been amazing, and I hope that we can continue to build a successful program, that the kids have fun and the parents enjoy watching us play on Friday nights, and hopefully on some Saturdays in November. I look forward to, hopefully, having a successful season and a nice little run in the playoffs."
Pritchard's first two months on the job have included a summer camp that involved a lot of what he terms as "play recall" during the month of July -- his way of getting the players to remember the plays in his playbook.
"We've learned a lot over this summer with our camps," Pritchard said. "So far, so good. The kids have worked really hard.
"One thing they told me when I took this job is that I'm going to have a pretty good senior class and some upperclassmen that are pretty good, and nobody lied to me about that. They didn't just throw smoke and mirrors at me. It's a true statement, and we have plenty of kids who are competing every play."
There was a lot to learn as Pritchard has made a lot of changes since taking over as head coach. His predecessor, Jeff Graham, led the Panthers to five straight playoff appearances from 2014-18.
"We changed the offense completely since last year. We changed our defense as well," Pritchard said. "The kids remembered a lot, and I think we're going to be ready for week one."
Among the changes made, Pritchard said, was the terminology, along with new words for the kids to hear, plays to remember and blocking schemes.
"We're going to keep some of what coach Graham did, but terminology-wise and play style-wise, we've changed a lot," Pritchard said. "Defensively, we've changed a lot schematically. So far, they've done a great job of picking it up. They're all helping each other remember it when they get to the line, which has been great."
During the summer, PBL competed in 7-on-7 scrimmages at Warrensburg-Latham (June 29), at Rantoul (July 19) and at home against Fisher (July 24). At those scrimmages, Pritchard was able to show off his team's depth at the wide receiver position.
"We've probably put seven or eight different kids out there, and they can all run their routes. They can all catch the ball," Pritchard said. "I feel like they're all going to be able to block when they need to block. Any given time I think we can put a receiver out there, we're putting receivers out there that we think can do different things, and that will allow us to give breaks to other kids who may be playing defense as well."
Though PBL's top two receivers from last year -- Mason Ecker (20 receptions, 548 yards, seven touchdowns) and Austin Gooden (11 catches, 159 yards, one touchdown) graduated, Hunter Anderson returns for his senior year after catching five passes for 148 yards. Senior Drake Schrodt caught one pass for 11 yards in an injury-shortened season while Colton Coy also returns for his season year after an injury-spoiled junior season.
"I'm not going to say this is the absolute best wide receivers I've ever had, but this is definitely the deepest wide receiver corps I've had," Pritchard said.
Last year, PBL had two starting quarterbacks throwing the ball.
Gunner Belt, who will return for his senior season, passed for 979 yards and 11 touchdowns last season while rushing for 179 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior Gavin Coplea passed for 189 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 226 yards and five touchdowns.
Pritchard said he will have great expectations for whoever is under center this season.
"Offensively, everything's changed, for the most part. They have a little bit more responsibility this year of lining kids up and play calling," Pritchard said. "With the terminology changing, they had to understand what we're trying to see from them. I guess I'm pretty hard on my quarterbacks.
"I expect them to know a lot of stuff and to be the leaders on the field. So far, our quarterbacks have done well. I think we have one or two, at least, at every grade level, which is great because then we've got a freshman quarterback and some junior varsity quarterbacks and a couple of kids at the varsity level we feel like, if we need to put them in on Friday night, they're going to do just fine for us."
After rushing for 1,083 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Panthers last season, T.J. Jones will play for McKendree University this upcoming fall.
Anderson ran for 86 yards on 22 carries.
"I feel like we have three or four running backs that I can play at any given time. I don't think we will have a bell cow like they had last year where they leaned on T.J. Jones last year quite a bit. I think we're going to probably put at least three different running backs in every Friday night," Pritchard said.
"We may put four or five in. We just want a bunch of different people to carry the ball because I think that makes the defensive coordinator have to work and adjust to what type of running back we have in there because they all do different things, and they all do them pretty well."
Pritchard said he has yet to set a depth chart as of the first week of fall practice.
"We want to find out who's going to beat who out. The good thing is we have a lot of competition," Pritchard said. "We have a lot of upperclassmen. We have a great senior class, so we're just going to let them compete and figure out who ends up being the better player when the season comes around."
Pritchard is in no rush to get a depth chart ready to go for week one.
"We may be doing that for the next week and a half. Going into (week one), we may finally have our depth chart together," Pritchard said. "Obviously, we have some kids that we think are going to be in certain places, but we have a lot of things who are competing for a lot of spots."
Along with the running back and wide receiver positions, Pritchard said there is a lot of depth at the defensive linemen positions as well despite the departure of Jake Rich, who will play for McKendree after recording 10 tackles for loss of yards last season.
Senior Alex Rueck had seven TFLs while fellow senior linebacker/defensive end Dalton Busboom recorded 12 1/2 TFLs and 1 1/2 sacks.
"I feel like we're going to be able to play seven or eight defensive linemen because I don't think we lose a ton when we go from one to the next," Pritchard said.
Having a deep roster is essential, Pritchard said.
"We don't want just 11 kids to play on defense or 11 kids on offense. We would love to have 15, 16 or 17 kids playing on both sides on the ball because it's going to keep us fresh in the fourth quarter and it's going to get more kids who are ready to play. It's football -- eventually, somebody's going to get injured, and we need to have somebody ready to go right away."
Last year, PBL yielded 210 points through 11 games en route to its 7-4 record.
"Defensively, I would say we're behind where we are offensively, but that's partly because we really installed our offense a lot in the summer, rather than focusing as much on our defense," Pritchard said.
"We have a ton of positions that are open on defense. We have very few kids that we have penciled in as our starters. Right now, we only have about one or two kids on our front seven that we feel like is going to be a starter, for sure."
Keyn Humes is kicking for Knox College after making the all-Sangamon Valley Conference first team last year.
"We haven't really done a ton of special teams stuff yet. We'll probably hit that more in week two (of fall practice)," Pritchard said. "I'm sure we have one (kicker) sitting on the team ready to play. Obviously, we hope we're kicking off a lot because that means we scored quite a bit. We hope we don't have to use our punter too much. Special teams-wise, we want to get many kids on the field that aren't starters, but we're going to go all out. We expect to score on special teams, whether we're blocking a punt or returning a punt for a touchdown. We want to go all out on our special teams, and we'll show that when the season gets going."
Six of PBL's nine opponents this season made the playoffs last year.
"I'm not going to say we've got the toughest schedule in the state, but there are plenty of good teams on this schedule," Pritchard said. "I think we're going to have a lot of tough ballgames, and we're going to hopefully play well enough on Friday to score more points than the other team."
The Panthers will travel to Gibson City on Aug. 24 to face Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley -- a two-time defending IHSA Class 2A state champion on a 28-game winning streak -- in their season opener.
"Opening up against a two-time state champion with 28 straight wins is going to test us pretty early in the season," Pritchard said. "We're going to find out what we're made of."
Both of PBL's nonconference opponents from the Vermilion Valley Conference -- Georgetown-Ridge Farm and Salt Fork -- made the playoffs last year.
The Panthers will face G-RF in week two and Salt Fork in week six.
"We obviously expect to compete with them," Pritchard said.
The Panthers will make their Sangamon Valley Conference debut on the road against Iroquois West in week three.
"This conference usually has one or two really good teams, and there are some in the middle of the pack that always make the playoffs," Pritchard said.
Following home games against Seneca and Momence in week four and week five, respectively, PBL will travel to Clifton to face the two-time defending SVC champions, the Central Comets, in week seven before concluding its regular season at home against Watseka in week eight and at Dwight in week nine.
"Clifton's going to be pretty good again this year," Pritchard said.