WELLSBURG - Last season was one of transition for the Brooke Bruins.
New coach Sean Blumette was hired relatively late in the process and spent as much time learning in the offseason and through fall camp as he did teaching.
Couple that with a multitude of injuries at key positions and suddenly you had a program that had played for back-to-back West Virginia Class AAA seasons two Decembers prior finishing at 3-7 and watching the playoffs from home.
''It's been a lot more comfortable this year being here a year rather than a few weeks,'' Blumette said. ''I think with this being our second year around most of the teams, the kids being more familiar with the system, the coaches being more familiar with the system, I really feel much more comfortable going into these games. Our kids have a new belief in themselves. Last year was a rough year.''
And that might be a good thing for the 2013 Bruins.
''We played a lot of young kids,'' Blumette said. ''But as they say, 'the more young kids you play, the more lumps you take.' We took our lumps.
''These young kids came in last year and we opened up competition for a lot of the positions and they seized the opportunity. We were very happy with the way they played even though they made the youthful mistakes. But we know in the long run, it's going to serve us well.
''It has shown in June and into camp. Those guys that took their lumps last year have really developed into leaders and guys that we're very happy to have back as part of this program.''
Trouble is, as good as they've gotten, it still might not be enough. Like the glory days of Brooke football, the schedule is a Murderers Row.
I'd feel a lot better ... ''if we weren't playing five of the top 10 teams in the state, plus Steubenville,'' Blumette said. ''One thing that I've come to realize is triple-A in West Virginia is what you make it. Yes, we can be 8-2 and not play anybody, but I'd much rather be battle-tested and play the best and see where we end up.
''If we were playing a normal schedule, I would sit here and say we could be 9-1, or 8-2, and make a run. But with the schedule we have, Our goal is simply to get to the playoffs.''
The key is to win the ones they ''should'' win, and possibly pull off a few upsets along the way.
They'll have to stay healthy, too. Within the first three weeks of last season, they'd lost three starters. If that happens again, the lumps will continue.
Among those lost to graduation was three-year starting quarterback Alec Buchmelter, who too, was lost to injury for a few games. Buchmelter completed 97 of 196 passes for 1,145 yards and nine touchdowns.
''Losing a leader like Alec Buchmelter is hard to overcome,'' Blumette said. ''Again, we were fortunately unfortunate. Alec took some bumps last year. He got hurt against Weir.''
In his place stepped then-sophomore Aaron Walker (5-foot-10, 180), who figures to take over the position on a full-time basis.
''(Walker) stepped in against Weir and Parkersburg South, and did a really nice job for us,'' Blumette said. ''We worked really closely with him all offseason, and we got into some classroom stuff and film stuff early.
''He's really developed into a team leader. The guys have really started to rally around him. And they see what kind of versatility he brings.''
Walker is a little different than the big-armed Buchmelter, but they'll take advantage of his dynamic running ability with more play-action, sprint-out stuff, though the base will remain the same.
Brooke's offense is still a pistol spread, zone, no-huddle look.
But with the makeup of this roster, which includes a pair of opposite-style running backs, a running QB, and two tight ends that are 6-foot-3 or better, there's little in anyone's playbook they can't try.
''We'll call our plays to take advantage of (Walker's) strengths,'' Blumette said. ''And use him to his fullest capabilities.''
Sophomore Chad Harper (6-0, 175) and senior Ethan Sole (6-0, 185) are the backup QBs.
Raleigh Mason was expected to be the featured back last season, but he, too, was injured and missed a large chunk of the season.
In his place jumped then-freshman Justin Loughrie (6-1, 165), who wound up as the team's leading rusher. He's back, where he will be paired with senior Nick Ossman (5-10, 190), a transfer from Madonna's Class-A state runner-up team.
''He's added a new dimension to our backfield,'' Blumette said of Ossman. ''He brings a more physical style than Justin.''
The fullbacks are senior Nigel Bowland (5-10, 190) and junior Ryan Parrish (5-7, 170).
Blumette likes his group of receivers, of which three of the top five are returning starters in sophomore Thomas Cole (6-5, 215), senior Heath Hildreth (5-8, 150), and senior Nick DeStefano (6-0, 155).
''Cole had a great season as a freshman,'' Blumette said. ''Hildreth will do everything for us (including punt).''
Sophomore Matt Lazear (5-10, 145), brother and son of former Bruins stars Ryan, and Jim, respectively, is another receiver, as are senior Aquil Dameron (6-1, 175), and junior Kyle Bowman (6-2, 170), who is pushing to start and may find himself doing so on any given week.
Senior Joey Staffilino (6-3, 225) is back at tight end where he's reportedly drawing some NCAA Division I-AA looks.
''He's deceptively fast for a big kid, and he's very, very physical,'' Blumette said. ''As far as blocking goes, he's going to be a huge component in the pass game and very significant in making this run game work also.''
Sophomore Nate Green (6-5, 210) can team with Staffilino and Cole to draw some serious matchup problems.
''I'll take that.'' Blumette said. ''I like that.''
They graduated three seniors along the offensive line, where new coach Chris Hill, who came down from Weir High, takes over.
''He's done a tremendous job,'' Blumette said.
Who is he working with?
Two starters return in former right guard Preston Wise (6-10, 285) at center and junior Justin Elliott (6-3, 215) at right tackle where he started as a sophomore.
Wise, a senior, injured a knee in wrestling, but he's still the brains behind the line.
''He's smart, he makes all of our line calls,'' Blumette said. ''He's picked up the offense, and he has a great rapport with the quarterbacks.''
Other names in the mix along the line are senior Logan Green (6-4, 255), junior Cody Rine (6-3, 280), senior Joe Montgomery (5-10, 185), junior Collin Burns (6-0, 210), junior Luke Grizzel (6-4, 280), and senior Joe Lancaster (5-10, 201).
''Basically we're just going to battle it out,'' Blumette said. ''I like to be eight or nine deep to play those five spots. Right now, we have six. I would like to get us up to eight.''
Defensively, the Bruins most certainly took their lumps.
Rine is joined by a transfer from Cannonsburg, Pa., in senior Casey Munger (6-2, 205). Todd Clark, who came out late a season ago and worked with strength and speed and not necessarily technique, ended up having a fine season that included a 4.5-sack effort in one game.
Now that he's had a full offseason, Blumette says the sky is the limit for the son of another former Bruin by the same name.
A handful of sophomores are in the mix as backups there.
The main concern for Blumette on the defensive side is depth at linebacker.
''I think our starting 11 on both sides are pretty well close to being set,'' he said early in camp. ''There's a lot of competition for those few spots and key backup spots.''
Senior Shawn Ashbrook, a leader on defense, moves to inside linebacker from his outside position.
''He's really been the captain of the defense for us,'' Blumette said. ''He calls all of the signals. He's a tremendous vocal and physical leader.''
Boland will play the ''Will'' linebacker position and Parrish will play the ''Sam.'' They were both starters at the position at the end of last season.
Loughrie and junior Jake Ohler (5-11, 165) are the cornerbacks, while Walker and Lazear or Ossman will man the strong safety position.
''We're still very young in the secondary even though we're returning three starters,'' Blumette said. ''They've gotten much better technique-wise, they're much more physical. They've had a year of confidence, a year of learning the system.''
Hildreth will handle the punting duties and the big-legged Bobby Moore, a 6-2, 220-pound senior, will do the placekicking.
''He's probably (accurate from) 45 yards-in,'' Blumette said. ''He hit a big one against JM last year and a pretty decent one against Wheeling Park. He's a weapon. That takes a little bit of pressure off the offense. I feel confident inside the 35.''
All told, the Bruins bring back 27 lettermen on a roster of 57 in the upper three grades, the latter number being comparable to last season.
There are also 27 on the freshman team.
''We'll be evaluating them all year long,'' Blumette said. ''If there's a kid that can help us out, even at the jayvee level, and give us some depth, we'll look at what we did last year and move a couple of kids up if need be.''
Assistant coaches are Terry Rea, assistant coach and defensive coordinator; Ted Arnault, quarterbacks, linebackers and special teams coordinator; Paul Julio, receivers; Hill, offensive and defensive lines; Chuck Taylor, defensive tackles; Doug Lamp, defensive ends; Juice Royal (volunteer); C.J. Becese, and freshmen coaches Jason Williamson and Jeff Blondon.
Shawn Ashbrook, Nigel Bowland, Todd Clark, Aquil Dameron, Nick DeStefano, Zach Ferrari, Logan Green, Heath Hildreth, Joe Hood, Joseph Lancaster, Matt Mazzone, Joe Montgomery, Robert Moore, Casey Munger, Preston Wise, Nick Ossman, Ethan Sole, Joe Staffilino, Alexander Tate.
Kyle Bowman, Colin Burns, Scott Edgell, Justin Elliott, Luke Grizzel, Eugene Jones, Mike Kurcina, Jacob Ohler, Ryan Parrish, Cody Rine, Aaron Walker.
Tyler Bailey, Jeff Braun, Seth Burek, Blake Burns, Thomas Cole, Aaron Cox, Matt Doll, Levi Doyle, Nathan Green, Bryan Hanlon, Chad Harper, Marty Johnson, Thomas Lancaster, William Law, John Lazear, Matt Lazear, Dillan Lilly, Justin Loughrie, Patrick Taylor, Marquon Underwood, Cody Younciak, Christopher Zonker.