The numbers are staggering when you consider exactly how different this year's South Medford football team is from the last.

The numbers are staggering when you consider exactly how different this year's South Medford football team is from the last.

In terms of regular-season production, the defending Southwest Conference champion must replace 94 percent of its scoring, 95 percent of its rushing yards and 96 percent of its receiving yards.

"We lost a lot, for sure," says South Medford coach Bill Singler, "but you go through that sometimes where you lose a lot of starters, especially when you lose a big senior class like we had. I think the saving grace is we have a returning starter at quarterback in Josh Milhollin. I would feel a lot different if we didn't have a returning starter at that position."

The 6-foot-4, 185-pound senior played a complementary role to the likes of running back Patrick Thibeault and receivers E.J. and Mitch Singler last season, but the ball will be squarely in his hands this season to guide the Panthers back to the state playoffs.

"I think he knows that he's expected to be a leader," says coach Singler of Milhollin. "He understands the offense better and I think his decision-making will be much better after a year under his belt. We're looking for him to be efficient, we're not looking for him to make every darn play."

Milhollin passed for 1,861 yards last season, completing 125 of 233 passes (54 percent) with 15 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. A tremendous athlete — Milhollin cleared 6-7 in the high

jump last spring — the senior spent the summer honing his quarterback skills and has already received a scholarship offer from Portland State University.

With so many new faces surrounding him, there might be a tendency on Milhollin's part to try to take over games this season, but Singler says that's something he'll need to shy away from.

"I don't want him to get to that point," says the coach. "I just want him to be who he is, be efficient and play the position. We're hoping that our run game is pretty efficient so that it takes pressure off him. We don't want to get into a throwing affair. I think our offensive line looks to be a physical group, and I think our backs look to be pretty physical and aggressive, so we should be OK."

Center Kevin Thibeault (6-2, 245) and right guard Jake Sartain (5-10, 210) return to anchor an agile front line that includes left tackle Luke Cutting (6-3, 245), left guard Logan Emonds (5-11, 270) and right tackle Mark Combs (6-3, 245).

"I think this might be the best offensive line South Medford has had in a while," says Thibeault. "We're a pretty close-knit group and we're all quick and we have the right mentality."

Even though he's the only junior in the bunch, Thibeault's influence on the line doesn't go unnoticed.

"He's got good poise and he's very athletic," says Singler. "Having a big guy at center like that is terrific, especially with some of these teams that are going to odd fronts. Having a center that can handle a nose guard without a lot of help is nice."

The line may have no choice but to be quick on its feet, if only to get out of the way of bruising junior running back Kevin Gilmore. The 6-1, 240-pounder is certain to have an impact for South a year after leading the junior varsity to an 8-0-1 showing last fall.

"He's under the radar a little bit and has a lot he's going to have to prove," says Singler, "but he had a whale of a JV season and I think he really wants to become a big-time player. He's got the size and the speed and the fluidity that could really make him a great back."

Gilmore is one of only three returning players to have scored a touchdown last year for the Panthers, the others being Milhollin and senior tailback Mario Sainez.

"He's going to be a load," says Thibeault of Gilmore. "He gets going, too. He's a pretty quick kid."

Sainez will share carries in the backfield with Gilmore, offering a little more speed and cutback ability for a team that appears to be in the mold of the 2004 Panthers. That group was spearheaded by QB Jon Weaver, running backs Logan Boyd and Ryan Odell and had efficient receivers like Dan Chancler — as well as some sophomore plucking footballs out of the sky named Kyle Singler.

"That was a very efficient offense," says coach Singler. "We were pretty balanced run-pass, so that's where I can see us hopefully evolving to."

That 2004 team also had a pretty solid defense, as will this bunch of Panthers.

Defensive end Brett Wallan (6-2, 220) returns as one of South's top playmakers, and the secondary is experienced with free safety Josh Havird and cornerbacks Casey Kline and Sainez.

"I'm actually really excited about it," Wallan says of South's defense. "We're going to give people a fresh look this year. We have a lot more speed than we're used to across our front line."

That speed and ability to pursue the ball has allowed Wallan to be an impact defender for the Panthers going on three seasons now.

"He's a kid that has a nose for the football," says Singler. "He's always around the ball and has good size on the edge and good quickness. He's tough to block."

Gilmore and Emonds join Jason Oakes in giving South good toughness at defensive tackle, while Jeff Larson is undersized at 6-1, 175 pounds but very aggressive on the end.

The linebacker corps is inexperienced but capable, according to Wallan. Seniors Nate Thornton, Mark Wimmer, Sartain and junior Mark Mexia are expected to compete for playing time.

"I have confidence in all those guys and I think they can all hack it at the varsity level," says Wallan.

That theme seems to play out when discussing any of the roles that will be filled by varsity understudies or former JV players.

"We may not have players this year like E.J. or Mitch, but we'll step up and be just fine," says Thibeault. "We just had so many seniors last year that there were any spots on the varsity for them. It's not that they weren't good enough; half the kids on JV could've started on other teams. Our team was just that powerful last year."

And Singler isn't looking to take a step back anytime soon.

"We're not going to back down, obviously," says the coach, who has guided South to the state playoffs in six of the last seven seasons. "We're shooting for a conference championship, to be a playoff team and from there you've got to say, 'Can you win a state title?' I don't know, who knows who can win a state title. You just try to put yourself in position to have a shot, and that's hopefully what we'll be able to do."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com