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Mayfield going for 5th straight title

By Mike Stunson mstunson@paducahsun.com

There's no better tradition in west Kentucky football than the excellence from Mayfield, which will be aiming for a fifth consecutive state championship this season.

The Cardinals made the jump from Class 1A to 2A look easy, and with the return of quarterback Landon Arnett and running back Trajon Bright for their third years, Mayfield will again be the state favorite.

But with those aspirations comes the pressure. Lots of pressure.

"This town expects us to win, this community expects to win, and the school expects us to win," Joe Morris said. "We don't want to be that team to break the streak of making it to the state championship game seven years in a row. We have a lot of guys coming back and they know how tough it is to get there."

The bull's-eye on the back of Mayfield grows larger every year, and that holds true this season, when the Cardinals will look to become just the third school in state history to win five state championships in a row.

It starts with Bright, who has amassed more than 3,800 rushing yards in his Cardinal career. Morris said Bright is the heart and soul of the team, with the offense going through him.

"He's one of those guys who amazes you every time he runs the ball," Morris said. "He's such a good leader, and the biggest difference this year is he has gained 15 pounds of muscle. He's such a hard worker and won't complain if he runs it five times or 40 times."

But it's a running attack that is deep and one Morris calls one of the biggest improvements of the team. Shauntrez Tyler, who started some last year after an injury to Bright, will be the primary backup.

Arnett's wide receivers will be the biggest question mark, as all of the top weapons from 2015 have graduated. Morris expects Anton Lumson, Jordan Harrison and Jack Murrell to be the go-to receivers.

While Morris said he is excited about the potential of the receivers, he will still look for Arnett to do more with his legs in 2016.

"With a young receiving corps, (Arnett) will have to learn to live with mistakes they might make early," Morris said. "He'll just have to live with that, but we're going to put more on his shoulders. He'll probably run it more than he has in the past."

Mayfield returns a veteran offensive line, but will look for players to step up to claim roles on the defensive line.

Morris said he has nine guys to rotate in and out on the defensive line, with none yet stepping up to own a position.

There won't be any worries at linebacker, where Kincer Arnett and Kyle Hurt will man the inside, with Nick Workman and Nate Fox on the outside for what is the most complete unit on the team.

There are also plenty of veterans in the secondary, including Jaime Tapia and Lumson at the safety positions.

Even with plenty of experience back at most position groups, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done for the Cardinals to continue their unprecedented run.

"As of right now, we haven't done a great job of catching the ball clean," Morris said. "And communication with our defense needs to get better. We still aren't lining up right and someone needs to take charge."

Another team that will be leaning heavily on a running back is Murray, which will be using the powerful Andrew Pajor out of the backfield early and often.

Murray graduated many of its top weapons from last year, including Des'Jahvonni Miles and Duke freshman Tre Hornbuckle, but Pajor is the most important mainstay who will lead the offense and the defense at middle linebacker.

"He needs to be the go-to guy on both sides of the ball. There is no point in beating around the bush or hiding from it, he will be the guy," Murray coach Keith Hodge said. "He has to carry the team and do the right things. He has to take care of himself and pick the team up."

The best part of Pajor being the workhorse is that it could allow some of Murray's unproven receivers and its young quarterback an opportunity to shine when opponents stack the box.

At quarterback, the Tigers will be going with Hunter Utley -- a freshman who will be given the keys right from the get go.

"He's a little bit ahead for his age. He throws the deep ball really well. I really like his decision making in practice, but we are pacing him," Hodge said. "We will ask him to be a play-action quarterback. He's a strong quarterback for his age, but having Pajor back there will allow him to be protected and open things up for him."

Anthony Duffy, John Seargent and John Farmer will be top weapons for Utley, along with Pajor.

Offensive line is a position Hodge feels good about, with Dalton Lassiter leading the way up front.

There isn't a ton of experience coming back to the defense, but with Victor Hudspeth joining the linebacking corps with Pajor and a defensive line that averages out at 275 pounds, Hodge feels the Tiger defense has the potential to remain stout.

"The way our defense is set up, we want to funnel everything to Pajor and our other linebackers," Hodge said. "We will use our size up front and hopefully play solid defense. We're shooting to be able to stop the run."

Hodge also looks to implement a strong kicking game, with Matthew D'Elia having the capability of kicking the long field goal or pinning an opponent deep near the end-zone.

Very few teams in west Kentucky graduated more players than Murray, but Hodge and his Tigers won't be making any excuses.

"We have to stick to who we are. We try to pride ourselves on being a physical team, and we just need to be who we are," Hodge said. "The good programs that play well every year and don't make excuses for what you lose every year. They just stay consistent in what they do and play good consistent football."

Ballard Memorial is riding a streak of four consecutive winning seasons, and has set its team slogan as "Fighting for Five" in its hopes for another successful year.

A lot of it will rest on the capable legs of Devyn Bledsoe, who ran for 919 yards in his junior season. But with plenty of depth at the skill positions, head coach John Elliott won't have to rely solely on Bledsoe.

"We feel that we're as good at those skill positions as we ever have been," Elliott said. "We have plenty of depth, plenty of experience and plenty of talent. We're really blessed with our skill talent."

Jamarrion Williams, Dru Collier, Tyrell Byas and Austin Cook will all interchange at the skill positions offensively, with Erick Marinelli doing the quarterback duties.

The challenge will be on the lines, as Peter Green (offensive line) and Austin Cook (defensive line) are the only returners.

"We'll have a lot of guys playing their first varsity football. We feel like they're going to be good players, but they will just be inexperienced," Elliott said.

Joining Mayfield, Murray and Ballard Memorial in the district is Webster County, which has won just one game in each of the past five seasons.

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