The Fulton varsity football team has some big shoes to fill on the offensive and defensive lines this year.

The Steamers lost All-State lineman Eli Pannell from their roster, who led the team with over 70 tackles (24 for a loss).

When defense was such a huge part of their game last year, that’s the first thing head coach Patrick Lower will be looking at. And he has some ideas, with the line around Eli Pannell returning pretty much in tact.

“Eli is a guy that will be very hard to replace,” Lower said. “He had a great motor and made a ton of plays for us. We have the four guys around him on the offensive line back and the three guys around him on the defensive line back. Those returners will have to take more ownership individually for us to grow.”

It stays crucial. In their five wins last season, the Steamers didn’t allow their opponents to put up more than 13 points. They’ll be looking to returners Max Pannell, Trae Van Zuiden, Nate Portz and Dylan Bridgeman to help lead the way.

Some of the people on their defensive line will be crucial on the other side, too.

They’re returning a handful of offensive talent who had impressive seasons as underclassmen. Juniors Kyler Pessman and Ethan Rash are coming back after impressing with huge rushing yards last season, with Rash picking up all-conference honors with almost 600 yards throughout the season.

However, they lost senior quarterback Max Lemke to graduation as well, leaving them training a new one. Junior Connor Barnett will be handling those duties. Barnett, a junior, is the starting point guard for the basketball team and plays varsity baseball. He made contributions for the Steamers on the football field as a sophomore as well.

Sophomore Patrick Lower will back him up.

“The quarterback position is extremely important,” Lower said. “Our QB has a lot on his plate from knowing his reads in the pass game, to knowing everyone’s routes and all the formations we throw at teams. He [Barnett] has had a great off-season both physically and mentally.”

It’s a lot of younger athletes, but ones who have already dipped their toes into the varsity level of football. Plus guys coming off of the fifth consecutive postseason appearance.

“Our goal each and every year is to get a little better each day,” Lower said. “We strive for excellence. We have really practiced well so far with great energy and enthusiasm. I believe as long as we keep the mindset of getting better every day, the win and losses will take care of themselves. We hope to be competitive each and every Friday night no matter who our opponent is.”

But the Steamers are no strangers to surprising people. After a playoff run in 2017, they saw a lot of offensive power graduate. That left the 2018 season laden with sophomores with little varsity experience.

After a slow start, those sophomores broke loose with an impressive defense and offensive threats from all angles. They even surprised their head coach by heading to the postseason.

With those same faces back, they have a year of experience under their belt. That takes some of the pressure off.

“This year we have not had to teach and introduce as much as last year,” Lower said. “We are re-teaching things a lot more. A lot of these guys have been through it before and understand the pace and amount of schemes we put in daily. Practice has been a lot smoother as far as that goes, which is expected when you have a lot of guys returning from last year.”

Week 10 isn’t something that’s on their mind quite yet, especially with the numbers they have.

“As a program, we have weaknesses like any other small school playing football,” Lower said. “Our depth is a concern. We have more this year than last year, but as we all know, injuries can be very tough to overcome. Hopefully we can stay healthy. We have done a good job so far getting a lot of guys reps throughout practice so far.”

Still, there’s a lot of promise. If the defense can come out as powerful as it was with the absence of Eli Pannell and the offense can perform like it did, then the Steamers will be looking to enter the postseason yet again.

“We try not to talk about a possible Week 10 or the playoffs,” Lower said. “We all hope to get there, but it is a long season and you never know what can happen. I like this team a lot and I believe we will play the right way and be in a lot of ballgames, but we are truly taking it one game at a time. We are focused on getting better every day.”

Fulton opens up their season on the road, traveling to Princeton on Friday night. They welcome St. Bede to their home gridiron on Sep. 6.