The twinkle in Tony Love’s eye and his playfully dry tone betrayed the grin hidden beneath his mask.

“I don’t know where they found the weight rooms — I know they didn’t find it here on campus — but they found weights, concrete blocks, logs, I don’t know,” Ashland’s coach said. “They were pretty creative when it came to getting themselves trained.”

The Tomcats are “stronger than I anticipated us being coming back” out of the COVID-19 dead period, Love said.

The hope at the corner of 29th and Elm is that that strength will buoy Ashland, as well as the strengths of its defense — eight returning starters from a unit that allowed 16.8 points per game in 2019 — and its speed.

Track-sprinting seniors Keontae Pittman and JT Garrett figure to play prominent roles in the Tomcats’ offense, which has four first-year starters up front and is breaking in a new quarterback after Jake Gregg transferred to Wheelersburg over the summer.

“We want to get the ball in their hands as much as possible,” Love said of the duo he called “KP and JT,” “because every time they have the ball in their hands, we’ve got a chance to score.”

Pittman enters his senior year with 2,574 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns on the ground. He carried for 1,265 yards and 17 TDs last season and also caught two scoring passes.

Garrett caught 385 yards’ worth of passes and three touchdowns — most prominently a 97-yard crunch-time game-winner at Russell in the teams’ first meeting — and ran for another TD. He is Ashland’s second leading returning rusher, behind Pittman, with 90 yards on the ground last season.

Look for Pittman to line up in the backfield and Garrett to be all over the place — and one or both as the recipient of a Wildcat snap now and then.

Garrett played defensively with all three position groups last season, Love said, and the Tomcats plan to spread him around similarly offensively this fall.

“He is one of those players that you gotta have on the field because he’s gonna make plays,” Love said. “We expect him really to be able to play in multiple positions and to be that dynamic kid that you’re gonna have to figure out where he is and where he’s going. I think people will have their challenges to try to figure out what’s gonna happen with him.”

Junior Brett Mullins will call signals. He hasn’t thrown a pass as a Tomcat and has dealt with some injuries in previous years, but that newness factor may work against opponents, too, the coach said.

“He’s one of those kids that will work at something until he gets really good at it,” Love said. “He takes a lot of pride in being a workhorse, and he’s a heck of an athlete. He’s got several dimensions to him, and a lot of times, especially early in the season, teams will have that unknown feeling as to, what can he do, what can’t he do.”

Mullins has proven himself not to be contact-shy with experience in the secondary, Love said, and may add a mobility element.

Senior Hunter Gillum brings “levity” and “competitiveness” to the backfield and is “mature in thought,” Love said. Junior Vinnie Palladino is also expected to get carries.

Senior Jack Alley “is a long receiver with excellent hands, and he’s got deceptive speed,” Love said. He’ll join Garrett out wide, as will senior Paul Humphrey, whom Love touted as a “great possession receiver.”

“(Humphrey) and JT are probably the best blocking receivers we’ve had in a long time,” Love said, “and that’s important to us.”

Senior center Jackson Foutch is the lone returning starter for an offensive line that paved the way for Ashland to amass 4,493 yards of offense last year. Junior Zane Christian moves from tight end to tackle. Senior Grant Germann, senior Sawyer Alley, junior Jordan Jones and junior Blake Messer were frontrunners to claim the other three spots as of early August, Love said.

Ashland views offensive linemen as interchangeable and frequently moved them around last season situationally, Love said.

“I ask these guys to learn every position across the front, because we’re really rule-based in our teaching,” said Love, who doubles as the offensive line coach. “So if you understand the rules of our offensive line blocking schemes, then you should be able to plug into each one of those positions, apply the rules and be able to know who you’re supposed to block.”

Sophomore Isaiah Ingram and senior Asher Stevens “will factor in” at tight end, Love said. He added Ashland anticipates frequently using a flex tight end — essentially the hybrid of a tight end and a receiver.

Love said Ashland’s defense “is probably gonna be the strong part of our season,” with only one departure at each level.

Christian (15 solo tackles, 13 assisted, three for loss last year), senior Jack Latherow (26 solo tackles, 24 assisted, three sacks) and senior Kolby Coburn (19 solo tackles, 13 assisted, five for loss) return on the defensive line.

Senior linebacker Caleb Tackett — son of Tomcats defensive coordinator Chad Tackett — is about 20 tackles shy of the 300-stop career mark entering the year. He made 76 solo tackles, 36 assisted and five for loss last season.

“He’s done a great job of wanting to be something special in this program, wanting to lead our program to that next level,” Love said of Tackett. “That’s important to him. And I think that inspires him to work his butt off.”

Senior linebacker Triston Rayburn chipped in 39 solo tackles and 38 assisted and forced two fumbles.

Garrett (25 solo tackles, nine assisted, four for loss), Jack Alley (37 solo stops, eight assists) and Gillum (51 solo tackles, 10 assisted, two interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown) return in the secondary. Pittman and Mullins will play some there too, Love said.

Ashland has “more kickers than I can remember (ever having),” Love said, “and they’re all good.”

Senior CJ Hunley is the lone returnee. Junior SJ Lycans, a transfer from Lawrence County, made 28 of 30 extra points and one of two field goals for the Bulldogs last year. Senior Calyx Holmes, who plays soccer and swims at Ashland, is also out, as well as freshman Jake Sexton, whom Love said “is gonna be big-time by the time he’s a senior.”

The aforementioned group will also handle punting duties. Pittman and Garrett return kicks.

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