INDEPENDENCE - Craig Sykes is really smart.
Not smart on the football field, though he certainly is that. No, the senior linebacker is an academic All-American, a biology and Spanish double major.
So when Sykes, who is known to complete a Rubik's Cube before games, says he expects Heidelberg to be as good as the 8-2 squad it was a year ago, you not only are inclined to believe it, but also to think he has concocted a formula to prove it.
"I haven't figured out an algorithm yet," he said.
Which isn't to say that he won't.
On the field, Sykes is a leader of a defense that went through a major improvement a year ago under first-year coordinator Scott Donaldson. That, combined with a potent running game, impressed the Ohio Athletic Conference poll voters Wednesday. After being picked fifth in the polls a year ago, HU jumped to third in the media poll, and tied with Baldwin Wallace for second in the coaches'poll.
In the past, Heidelberg players have used the voting as motivation to exceed expectations. This year, even with the improved rankings, Sykes said that won't change.
"We still have every bit of motivation," said Sykes, who made 88 tackles, 10 for a loss, had 4 1/2 sacks, forced two fumbles and recovered another in 2011, "because we're not on top yet."
To get on top, Sykes has a formula to improve the defense.
"We need to increase turnovers," he said.
Heidelberg returns just about everybody from last year's defense. The only exception is the graduated Tony Gordon, a defensive back.
"We've got to hit the ground running," HU coach Mike Hallett said.
On offense, Heidelberg will be without last year's star running back, Germany Woods. Woods has transferred to Mount Union, but will not be eligible to play this season.
With Woods gone, the bulk of the carries should go to Galion graduate Cartel Brooks, who ran for 759 yards a season ago.
"We feel like we have a big horse in the stable," Hallett said,
Also returning to the offense is quarterback Mike Mees, who started last year as a freshman.
"Mike should take a big step forward," Hallett said.
Predictably, Mount Union was ranked first in each of the polls. Only one vote in the media poll went somewhere else (Baldwin-Wallace). Mount Union has lost only 24 games in the last 25 years, but coach Larry Kehres said he's taking nothing for granted.
"We all know preseason polls don't count," Kehres said.