By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Hannibal football coach Mark St. Clair faces what many would see as a tough decision this season.
Senior Lijah Harrison returns as an all-state safety after leading Hannibal with 103 tackles last season. Yet, Harrison is also the top option to serve as Dalton Powell's replacement at starting quarterback.
Knowing there will be times he'll need to rest Harrison, either on defense or offense, St. Clair had a decision to make.
"We'd rather rest him on offense," St. Clair said.
St. Clair's decision epitomizes his team's mantra: The Pirates want to be strong defensively. That includes their quarterback.
"I'll always be a defense-first guy. It's kind of my niche, I guess," Harrison said. "It's what I enjoy doing. I play offense because Coach tells me I need to, and I'll do whatever he says."
Harrison certainly won't be the only key offensive player pulling double duty. After spending last season exclusively at running back, senior Mitch Nichols also will play in the secondary this season.
Nichols gained 1,191 yards on 158 carries with 16 touchdowns in 2012. He'll get plenty of touches once again, but rather than try to increase Nichols' carries, St. Clair is opting to use any leftover energy Nichols might have on defense.
"He's a physical kid, so this year we feel like we need to get some minutes out of him on the defensive side," said St. Clair, whose team opens the season at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Quincy Notre Dame at Porter Stadium.
Defense helped pave the way for Hannibal's 10-2 season in 2012. The Pirates, who lost 14-10 to Jefferson City Helias in the Class 4 District 6 championship, surrendered 13.8 points per game. In the final 10 games of the season, that number was at 11.4 points per game.
"We want to be that good (again)," St. Clair said.
The Pirates believe they can be, despite graduating their players ranking Nos. 2-4 in tackles last season. That list included three-time all-state free safety Caleb Bieniek.
Still, veterans will populate the defense. Harrison will shift from strong safety to free safety, with former linebacker Wyatt King taking Harrison's spot at strong safety.
Seniors Brett Wessel, Kyle Messer and Andy Colborn will be the anchors at linebacker, an area St. Clair sees as much improved. Senior Austin Davis will help lead the way on the defensive line after collecting a team-high 4½ sacks last season.
Offensively, resting Harrison will mean a two-quarterback system. St. Clair said he plans to sit Harrison for an offensive series every now and then throughout the game, with junior Austin Kirby in line to step into the quarterback role during that time.
"There's been many, many years I've had more than one quarterback," said St. Clair, in his 17th season as Hannibal's coach. "I don't see that position much different than I see any other position in high school. It's not like the pros where they think everything has to be about one guy. I'll use two. I've used three before."
At about 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Harrison is the sturdy option St. Clair likes to have running his veer offense. Kirby, meanwhile, has good footwork, is technically sound and throws a good ball.
"There's nothing to complain about with those two guys at quarterback," Nichols said.
There's also nothing to complain about with Nichols, who burst onto the scene last season after gaining 147 yards as a sophomore.
"Just his quickness and ability to see the field -- I feel like he can see the field like no other. He can make cuts like no other," Wessel said.
Having an established running back should lighten the load on the quarterbacks.
"We're a run-dominant team, and Mitch has obviously proven he can handle that," Harrison said. "So I'll give him the ball every play and let him do his thing."
Harrison also will hand off to King, who takes Bieniek's spot in the backfield. King served exclusively as a defensive player last season.
"Wyatt's fast. He's strong. He's got quick feet," St. Clair said. "He's got a year of playing on the defensive side at linebacker to toughen him up. I think people will be surprised at how tough he is at running back."
Up front, Hannibal lost all-state guard Jake Borgmeyer, along with starting tackle Zach Riley. Nonetheless, it's a fairly seasoned unit. Senior Jordan Wilson returns at center and sophomore Dylan Powell is back at tackle. Wessel and Gus Meyer return after seeing a lot of time at guard last season, and Davis is back at tight end.
"Obviously that's where it starts. We have a great group up front," Harrison said.