The Bulldogs' three offensive staples from a year ago -- quarterback Michael O'Brien, running back Landon Gouveia and wingback Andrew Winslow -- graduated after leading Stone Bridge to the program's first undefeated season and titles in the Dulles District and Region II. The trio combined for 4,219 yards of total offense -- a lot to replace for a unit that returns only starting tight ends Ed Wang (6-5, 270) and Brian Calloway (6-3, 185), though Calloway did catch a team-high 34 passes last season for 661 yards and six touchdowns.
"The outside perception is that we were in a lot of big games so our second-team guys got a lot of the reps, but what people don't realize is that a lot of those guys were seniors, too," Coach Mickey Thompson said. "We do have an experience problem."
Topping the list of "newcomers" is senior quarterback Sean Ryan. Ryan started two games at cornerback last season before being lost to a season-ending knee injury. He will work exclusively on offense this year and is expected to throw the ball more than O'Brien did, using his arm strength and his keen ability to read defenses to his advantage.
Senior wingback Andrew Ryan (6-0, 165) has also impressed during the preseason and will split carries with Khalil Conteh (5-7, 170). Neither player had many attempts last season, but Ryan (18.8 yards per carry) and Conteh (8.8 yards) proved productive when given the chance.
Much like the Bulldogs offense, the defense has only three returning starters, including Wang (unofficially committed to Virginia Tech) at defensive end and linebackers Conteh and Stephen O'Brien (6-0, 190). Conteh, a second-team All-Met last season, recorded a team-high 10 sacks and 86 tackles in 2003.
Seniors Nate Gamble (5-9, 240) and Justin Mirch (6-0, 220) have shown the potential to be standouts on the defensive line, but Thompson said their success could ultimately depend on the development of others.
"We don't like to have our players go two ways unless we have to," Thompson said. "That's why our inexperience this year is such a big deal. We're hoping some of the underclassmen develop so that guys like Nate and Justin can go one way. If not, we could be in trouble."
Stone Bridge will have to replace more starters than any other team in the district. Still, the Bulldogs are loaded with size on the line and an abundance of talent -- albeit untested -- at the skill positions. They remain the team to beat.
"We've got a lot of guys who are eager to play," Thompson said. "A lot of guys who want to be a part of the program we've built here and the success we've had. There are a lot of first-year starting seniors who have been waiting for their chance, and they're about to get it."
-- ANGELA WATTS