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Effingham wide receiver Carter Bushue makes a catch during a practice. The Flaming Hearts open the season, on the road, against Decatur St. Teresa, on Friday night.

You won't see some familiar names on the field this season for the Effingham football team.

After graduating key playmakers on offense and nearly their entire starting defense, the Flaming Hearts are heading in a different direction, but one that head coach Brett Hefner hasn't seen before.

"[Everyone] is going to need help from each other," Hefner said. "The group that just left had a couple of really good groups in front of them that they could live with and grow with, but [this group] hasn't had a whole lot of time to play. That's the big thing. We were in a similar situation in 2018 when we graduated a big class and had a small senior class. It was an unknown, and that's where we're at now. We've got a senior class of nine, [roughly] 21-22 juniors sitting behind them, and 17-18 sophomores.

"In 2018, it took us a couple of games to give them that experience, and from Week 2-on, they were pretty good."

Without the likes of quarterback Nathan Thompson (39-75, 512 yards, six touchdowns in 2020) behind center, Chase Woomer (110 carries, 636 yards, five touchdowns), and Trevor Donsbach (57 carries, 410 yards, seven touchdowns) lining up in the backfield, and Tristin Duncan (271 yards, three touchdowns), Parker Wolfe (117 yards, one touchdown), or Holden Lewis (103 yards, two touchdowns) catching passes, fans will have to get accustomed to the new faces on the field.

Of the newcomers playing this fall, Hefner said that he expects a number of them to make an impact immediately and that he doesn't plan on changing much with the offense or defense.

"Schematically, defensively, it won't change any; offensively, it won't change any. The only difference with this year's group compared to last year's group is that the quarterback was a bit more of a run threat," Hefner said. "We've got pretty good running backs and offensive linemen. We're filling holes at wide receiver, and we're going to need people to step up for us. You might see a little bit more quarterback run than what people have seen."

Even with the drastic change in personnel, it is a situation that many teams go through from time to time, and with Hefner's group starting down that road this fall, it leaves a chance for opportunity and growth.

To help with that, Hefner mentioned a pair of returning offensive and defensive players that he hopes will provide more of a leadership role.

"Cohen [Woods] started every game for us, offensive line-wise, Connor Thompson started every game at tight end. We think that those guys will help lead us upfront," Hefner said. "Edgar [Castillo] will slide over from fullback to linebacker, so it's going to give us somebody who's played a number of varsity games. He and Dalton [Fox] are going to play linebacker and are going to have to lead us on that side."

Aside from those four, Hefner said that two other returners, not including Fox, who he expects to take a leap are senior wide receiver and defensive back Noah Jones and junior quarterback Tanner Pontious, both of whom didn't see much varsity time in the spring, giving them a chance to make an impression.

They will have that chance in the Flaming Hearts' opener against Decatur St. Teresa on Friday at 7 p.m.

Hefner, who begins his seventh season on Friday, enters that game with a career record of 41-18 and a string of four straight winning seasons, as well.

Contact EDN Sports Editor Alex Wallner at 217-347-7151 ext. 124 or alex.wallner@effinghamdailynews.com

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