COLUMBIA, MS (WDAM) - When Columbia Academy's Owen Harper started playing football in grade school growing up in Baxterville, he played a little bit of everything: quarterback, running back, tight end, defensive end, linebacker.
These days, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Harper has settled in as one of the better tight ends in the Pine Belt, a position he has come to embrace.
"It came pretty quick to me," Harper said. "For the body type I am, tight end's a good position. I always liked blocking because I get to hit somebody. You see your running back run, and you know, 'Hey, I did my job, now we're going down the field.'
"But to catch the ball and be able to run, that's always exhilarating."
Last season, Harper grabbed 40 passes for 526 yards and 5 TDs, as the Cougars reeled off a 9-3 season and made the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Randy Butler, who will be in his second season at Columbia Academy after more than three decades as a college coach, said Harper was the real deal.
"He's a legitimate Division I prospect," Butler said. "I did it for 35 years (as a Division I and junior college assistant), and I think I know a little bit about it, and he's a legitimate Division I prospect."
Despite the loss of a group of seniors who also helped Columbia Academy win a South State title in basketball and a Class AAA state championship in baseball, Harper said and his teammates were looking forward to the season ahead.
"I believe we're going to be pretty confident," Harper said. "It's our team, so you've got to be confident in your team. I think we'll do pretty well this year."
The Cougars will have to do so with a rebuilt team.
Gone are 15 seniors, including quarterback Wiley Cleland, receiver Luke McKenzie, running back Colton Sandifer, defensive tackle Dylan Martin and linebacker Reid Havard.
"It was a special group, and the first day I met with that team, I had a sense from that group, they felt like this was going to be their year, and I mean football, basketball, baseball," Butler said. "But they're gone and we're trying to find a new identity."
"In baseball, you start with the middle of your team. You start with catcher, pitcher, second (base), shortstop, center field. Well, when you look at us, our starting running back was a senior. Quarterback, center, defensive tackles were seniors. Our two safeties were seniors. So, the middle of both our offense and defense are gone."
But Columbia Academy returns 15 seniors as well as a bevy of underclass contributors. The Cougars also welcome back offensive coordinator Norman Joseph, a long-time collegiate assistant and former head coach at Belhaven College, Louisiana College and Mississippi College.
Sophomore quarterback Ras Pace, who stepped in when Cleland hurt his knee in first-round playoff game against Simpson Academy, is competing with fellow sophomore Peyton Rowell and senior Harrison Hartzog.
"That's a position where we don't have a returning starter, but Norman is coaching them, so I don't worry about it," Butler said. "I know they're going to get coached up and make great decisions.
"With Norman, we're still going to throw it, but we may be a little different in some areas."
Junior Drew Havard, who was hampered by a knee injury last season, is expected to the workhorse at running back.
"He's gotten bigger, stronger, faster," Butler said. "We're going to run him a lot."
Another backfield candidate will be senior Jake Brewer, the team's second-leading tackler as a defensive end in 2016.
"He's probably the fastest kid in the district," Butler said. "He can really run and is just a playmaker on defense."
Senior Aaron Thomas, who caught 27 passes for 486 yards and five touchdowns in 2016, returns, while Hartzog and Harper also will figure into the passing game.
Three seniors, Jay Stringer, Jay Reagan, Alex Sibley, all return as starters on the offensive line.
"They're all 300 pounders, but it doesn't mean anything if they just lean on people," Butler said. "We need them to maul people. But we're going to count on them."
Brewer returns up front, while Hartzog returns in the secondary. The Cougars also return leading tackler, senior strong-side linebacker Hayden Fornea, as well senior middle linebacker Cam Moree, who was suffered a knee injury about a third of the way into the 2016 season.
"I'm looking for him to come back where he left off."
Harper said the Cougars' goal this fall is the same as it's ever been.
"Our goal is like every other team, a state championship every year. So, every practice is focused toward that. Every rep we lift, every run, everything's geared toward a state championship."
Butler said his players know what's expected.
"When I got here, I promised that we were going to be physical, we're going to be disciplined and we're going to play hard, those three things," Butler said. "If I can get this team to do that, we're going to be OK."