BENNINGTON >> Heading into Year 3 of Mount Anthony coach John Martin's tenure, the Patriots have kept many of the same things from his first two years, but tweaks here and there have Martin and the Patriots optimistic as the season begins tonight against Middlebury.
"We've made some changes to the offense, we don't have the meaty guys as running backs," Martin said on Thursday afternoon before practice. "The original offense I brought in was more for those guys and now it's the same system but with some different formations that will be good for the size of our players."
For the skill positions, getting used to the changes has been the predominant challenge during preseason camp and into the scrimmage against Mill River.
The biggest learning curve heading into camp went to senior quarterback Ryan O'Neill. O'Neill, a star baseball player, is starting his final fall with the Patriots under center. It's the first time he's played football in a while but Martin said he's been strong during the preseason.
"He's a competitor and a gamer. He sees the big picture of the game as well," Martin said. "In terms of his mentality and approach, he's been one of the best leaders I've had in three years here. He is so coachable and he has a little ego, he believes in what he can do and he pushes the others to believe as well. He's a great game manager."
The other skill spots are having growing pains too. Mount Anthony lost three of its receivers in Damon Burgess, Pat Powers and Griffin Mattison and the ones trying to replace those yards and touchdowns are young and somewhat inexperienced.
One is Will Fischer, who was a starter a year ago.
"We're going to lean heavily on Will, he can be a playmaker for us. He will be an igniter on offense," Martin said.
Others include Austin Gordon and sophomore Cole Bushee, in his first year at the varsity level. A third will be senior Lias Levin, a Bennington native returning to Vermont after going to school at LaSalle Institute in Troy, N.Y.
"Lias is going to be one of our top receivers and the backup quarterback," Martin said.
On defense, coordinator Bill Hay is still running a 3-5 defense as he has the past couple of seasons and Martin said the defense is a strength.
"We want to rely on alignment and discipline and continue to improve our tackling as a team," Martin said. "We will rely heavily on our linebackers."
One of those, senior AJ Wright, is an outside linebacker that can fly to the ball. Another, Mickey Bernard, will play strong safety but be a force on stopping the run too.
The line is strong as well, with juniors Jake Harkins, Brodie O'Dell and Blake Carey all playing offensive and defensive line
The Patriots start their season tonight at 7 p.m. against the Tigers at Spinelli Field, then travel to Essex. They come back home for two games at Spinelli Field against Colchester and Rice before going to Rutland to face the defending Division I champions.
In the final three games of the regular season, MAU travels to Hartford and then plays CVU at home before travelling ovcr the mountain for the annual Elwell Trophy game against Brattleboro.
"The schedule is what it is, Division I isn't an easy place to be anyway," Martin said. "I think we have to face the best in the state every game in the regular season."
While Martin wouldn't predict a win-loss record, he does have a handful of goals for his team.
"We have to keep climbing and look for ways to get better," Martin said. "I don't know where we stand, but we'll find out real quick [tonight]. We don't want to underachieve, last year I thought we were much better than 3-6, but we didn't show it. If we execute, we'll live up to our expectations."