ASHLAND — A talented, motivated senior class led Ashland's surprising charge to the Class 5A state quarterfinals last season.

ASHLAND — A talented, motivated senior class led Ashland's surprising charge to the Class 5A state quarterfinals last season.

This year's Grizzlies will rely heavily on a few all-star caliber players and will also call upon a strong sophomore class that's likely to see plenty of action. That recipe is especially true in the offensive backfield, where game-breakers Lewis Sebrell (5-foot-11, 215 pounds), a senior, and Issa Shahin (5-10, 175), a junior, will take handoffs from either Talon Haggard (6-2, 200), a senior who missed last season with a shoulder injury, or Jake Scarminach (5-11, 160), a sophomore who led the freshman team in 2007.

The battle for the starting quarterback spot was still being waged late last week, but Ashland coach Charlie Hall says he's comfortable with both Haggard and Scarminach. That decision will determine the look of the Grizzlies, but may only slightly alter their strategy, which, once again, will be to pound away on the ground and take timely shots through the air.

That style worked wonders last season, when Sebrell rushed for 1,111 yards and eight touchdowns to lead a balanced offense that averaged 155 rushing yards and 157 passing yards. This year, he'll be sharing the ball a little more with Shahin, as the two will trade off on both defense (linebacker) and offense.

"Lewis is solid," Hall said. "He breaks tackles, he's physical, he's up to 215 pounds or more. Issa is fast as lightning. Any time he touches the ball he can break a tackle and go the distance, so it's great to have that thunder and lightning combination that we have, but we're still a one-back offense."

The holes may not be as big as they were last year, however. Graduating off the offensive line are first-team all-Southern Sky Conference tackles Sage Jensen and Matt Lipski. Guards Jeff Peters (6-0, 235) and Joe Hatch (6-3, 275) return, along with Matt Naylor (5-10, 170), who will move from guard to center, but Ashland's experience on the outside could become a factor early on.

Peters isn't worried.

"There are a lot of new guys on the team, but I think we're doing pretty good," he said. "I believe we're a pretty solid passing team, but when it's time to run, we can get the job done."

When the Grizzlies look to pass the ball, Charlie Sebrell (6-1, 175) will be the most likely target. He's big, athletic, experienced (a team-high 42 catches for 512 yards and five touchdowns in 2007) and has outstanding hands. He's also the only returning receiver who had more than 11 catches last season, which means he will draw plenty of attention from opposing defenses. That could open the door for the other wideouts: senior Will Bowers (5-8, 165), junior Oliver Krant (5-7, 130) and senior Trevor Hilligoss (5-10, 135).

As is always the case in a Hall-coached offense, tight ends will also play a key role. Senior Pat McCrea (5-11, 205) returns with the most experience there, but he'll be pushed by sophomore Brent Hegdahl (6-1, 190).

Scarminach and Hegdahl aren't the only sophomores bidding for varsity playing time this season, and the demographics tell why. Ashland has just 18 upperclassmen on the roster (11 seniors and seven juniors), but are loaded in the lower grades with 19 sophomores and 20-plus freshmen. And the up-and-comers are talented, too, engaging in battles for starting spots that are usually reserved for juniors and seniors.

"There's a lot of competing (in practice)," Shahin said. "Everybody's trying to show what they've got. That's football."

Ashland's defense is built around many of the same players who will play key roles on offense, including linemen Naylor and Hatch, linebackers Lewis Sebrell, McCrea and Shahin and defensive backs Charlie Sebrell (safety) and Bowers (cornerback).

Senior defensive end Dan Cowan (6-0, 170) will anchor the line, which will get help from three sophomores: Hegdahl, Rodney McDaniel (6-6, 265) and Jackson Volz (5-6, 169). It's a green bunch, but Hall likes the potential and the fact that they will be backed by a super quick linebacker corps. There, Lewis Sebrell, Shahin, McCrea and junior Mack Gargus (6-0, 175) are expected to give the Grizzlies a speed boost that last year's team, which allowed just 12.2 points per game, didn't have.

"They're going to rely on their athleticism more than their experience right now, then hopefully as the season goes on we'll watch film and we'll get better by the time we start playing conference games," Hall said.

In other words, the Grizzlies have a little more than a month to grow up, starting Friday night against Henley, one of three teams on Ashland's six-game nonconference schedule that made the playoffs in 2007.

The key early on, according to Hall, is the development of the offensive line. Last season, Ashland's passing game was so efficient, producing 24 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions, that it often overshadowed the rushing attack that made those numbers possible. Quietly, the Grizzlies averaged 4.6 yards per rush in 2007.

With Lewis Sebrell and Shahin a year stronger, the potential is there for an even better ground game this time around. And that, Hall says, would make the game easier for everybody.

"If (defenses) have to try to stop Issa and Lewis," Hall said, "then we can try to take our shots."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456 ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com