Falling back into the 1A fold fit the Crittenden County Rockets like a glove last season, as they skied to a 7-5 finish behind dual-threat quarterback Nick Castiller and an opportunistic defense that forced 36 turnovers in 12 games.
But with Castiller and most of the starting offense moving on after graduation, stalwart skipper Al Starnes admits he and the Rockets are in for some growing pains in 2016.
One place they are still comfortable is at quarterback, where sophomore Hunter Boone takes over.
Starnes describes Boone as the "Jared Lorenzen" of west Kentucky football - standing at 5-foot-10 and every bit of 200 pounds.
"He looks like a pulling guard," Starnes laughed. "But he's just poised beyond his years. We could've played him last year and put Castiller at running back or wide receiver. He's got that ability. He's very accurate, but he's still learning how to read defenses.
"He's got a strong arm, and I think he could break some school records when it's all said and done."
Boone won't be left to his own devices just yet, as the Rockets do have some seasoned veterans to surround him with on offense.
Former running back Maeson Myers is moving to the "Y" position in Starnes' spread offense. Senior wideout Ethan Hunt also returns after catching 22 passes for 295 yards and a touchdown in 2015, while running backs Devon Nesbitt, Jacob Russelburg and Gavin Dickerson should all get solid opportunities in the backfield with the departure of leading running back Dylan Hollis, who picked up 492 yards and nine scores on 71 touches last year.
Starnes still believes the defense will be the strongest part of the Rockets' season, especially with an entrenched front four and some experience in the secondary.
"We've got a great sophomore group, and this senior class played a lot last year," Starnes added. "We as coaches try to motivate and do what we can. A lot of people have said that we're not going to be very good, and so we've motivated that way."
The Rockets also have an extremely balanced schedule heading into the season - with five home games and five away games broken up fairly well. They won't play their home opener until Sept. 2, against McLean County. Other home games are Webster County (Sept. 16), Union County (Sept. 23), Ballard Memorial (Oct. 7) and Fulton County (Oct. 14).
They face their two toughest opponents - Caldwell County and Russellville - on the road.
Fulton City, Fulton County still seek legitimacy
Fulton City head coach Michael Thomas insists that despite being one of the smallest football programs in Kentucky, his kids may be some of the toughest. The roster - down to 15 able bodies in 2016 - plays both sides of the football with little, if any, substitutions through four grueling quarters.
After going 1-9 in 2014, the Bulldogs went 2-9 last season - earning two wins against rival Fulton County in close bouts. Fulton City scored in all 11 games last season, and will look to do much of the same with dual-threat quarterback Michael Downing, who took some snaps alongside former starting signalcaller Chan Malray.
In multiple formations, Downing went 21-for-42 for 356 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions, added 323 rushing yards with three scores, and also notched eight catches for 149 yards and two more touchdowns.
Thomas gushed about the development of wideout and defensive back Drew Malray and future starting quarterback Cameron Madding, but neither will see much -- if any -- action in 2016 for solid reasons. Malray currently weighs in at a svelte 98 pounds, while Madding continues to work on his game through game film.
"Madding has grown 3 inches, and he's a smart kid," Thomas said. "But he's got the 'it' factor. He's got a great arm, he studies film and he's got the feel and the leadership for quarterback.
"And Drew has the heart of a giant inside, but I can't put him out there just yet."
Starting center and linebacker KeShawn Murphy has reportedly put on nearly 30 pounds to his frame, while senior all-around athlete Areon Ferrell will remain as the top offensive threat overall for the Bulldogs after finishing 2015 as the team's leading rusher (102 carries, 637 yards, three TDs) and leading receiver (32 catches, 289 yards, three TDs).
"As a coaching staff, we're just working on getting these guys into expecting more of themselves," Thomas added. "We're full of athletes. Now we're telling them to just go out there and do (their) job."
Former Fulton County Judge-Executive David Gallagher is enjoying his second stint at the helm of Pilots football, but finds his program in a similar situation as Fulton City.
In a winless 2015 season, Fulton County scored at least 19 points in seven contests, but lacked depth on defense to finish out games. With less than 25 guys on the roster, the once-retired skipper says he plans to lean on five seniors - OT/DT Joyrian Bradley, RB/LB Tanner Ford, former Murray Tiger defender Carter Reid, OT/DT Lance Purfide and TE/LB Cameron Matheny - to help show a large freshman and sophomore class the ropes and rigors of varsity football.
"We have a good group that works as hard as anyone," he added. "Our seniors just have to lead the way."
A big reason Gallagher returned to the lead the program last season was to institute some new youth football programs in the area. Flag football has returned at the elementary levels, and he reports a little league program and the middle school team have been improved.
There has also been a renewed emphasis on the importance of weight training, something Gallagher said has been sorely lacking. He's expecting his freshman and sophomore classes to be a little bulkier as the seasons roll through.
"Fulton County has a rich history with football," Gallagher added. "This second time back, my old coaching staff and myself have just wanted to build this all back up."
The Pilots still have an open date (Sept. 9) remaining on their schedule.
Russellville remains king
The Panthers pummeled their way to an 11-3 record a year ago, eventually falling 34-25 to Beechwood in the 1A state semifinals. The graduation of Joshua Bigbee (132 carries, 1,531 yards, 15 TDs) eases the fears of defenses, but the return of senior MJ Jones (94 carries, 1,228 yards, 19 TDs) and an offense geared toward the run (4,926 team rushing yards in 2015) all but guarantees that Russellville will continue to grind the opposition into a messy pulp.
The Panthers will also rely on a feisty defense that netted 27 forced turnovers last season.
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