Bitter Class 5A rivals will be looking for better seasons in 2016, after Graves County was bounced from the first round of the 2015 playoffs by Greenwood and Marshall County pushed - and fell short - of the postseason.
The Eagles will undoubtedly rely on sophomore quarterback Ryan Mathis - a player head coach Lance Gregory believes is one of the best not just in this area, but in all of Kentucky's sophomore class. And while the proverbial "sophomore slump" can be a meddlesome thing, Gregory and his Eagles don't think it's coming.
Mathis is bigger, taller, stronger, smarter and wiser, says Gregory Ã¢ Â¦ at least in the summer and fall sessions. He's obviously older, more mature and more prepared fundamentally than he was as a wide-eyed freshman a season ago, when he posted 1,716 yards and 15 touchdowns, but 16 interceptions and just a 44 percent completion rate (112-for-256).
The goal this season will be to keep the offense from falling into a single dimension. Household names like Dakota Dixon and Cody Crider - bell cows in their time - are no longer in the backfield to blow up the box. To mimic Graves' historically strong running game, Gregory notes he will rely on a running back committee.
By the end of the season, it may look more like a city council. Brennen Culp, Chase Whitis, Koby Lamb and Hunter Hancock are all in line for at least a time-share in the Eagles' backfield, and Gregory said he wouldn't be afraid to ride the hot hand all the way to the final horn.
"If you're going to dump eight in the secondary, then we're going to run the ball," he said. "And if you stack it, we're going to throw. Our MO is to be physical, and we still want to do that. We still have a big, physical offensive line."
If the protection holds, Mathis could also scramble to break defenses, as he rushed 75 times for 372 yards and two scores in 2015. There's no question, however, he'll want to continue his connection with wideout Trevor Grant, who finished with 35 catches, 11 touchdowns and 787 yards last season.
Gregory attests Grant won't be alone in the receiving corps, as Jake Mills, Carson Elliott, Nate Chambers, Drew Cooper and Hancock will also be getting several opportunities in what should be an expanded passing game base on Mathis' improvements.
Speaking of improvements, the Eagles will be looking to shore up a defense that relinquished 2,029 rushing yards and 1,624 passing yards. The frequent gashes from opponents inevitably prompted the need for new tackling methods in 2016.
"I feel better about our defense, and we will be better tacklers this season," Gregory added. "In 2014, we had one of the best defenses in the state. We want to get back to being one of the good defenses."
In exchange for getting a Fall Break this season, the Eagles close 2016 with three tough road games - Christian County (Oct. 14), Owensboro (Oct. 21) and Calloway County (Oct. 28) -- before heading into the playoffs.
And the Eagles' final home game? None other than Marshall County on Sept. 30.
Marshals skipper Evan Merrick is putting most of the season's hopes on a hefty senior class composed of guys who have played together for the last two-plus years.
And the junior class isn't too far behind in terms of development and leadership.
"After being coach-driven for so long, it's like the band is back together," Merrick said. "These juniors and seniors are self starters, and that's very encouraging as a coach."
Senior wideouts Tristen Prange (16 catches, 157 yards, TD) and Lucas Forsythe (26 catches, 447 yards, 3 TDs) give junior quarterback and two-year starter Skyler Smith (850 yards, 6 TDs, 15 INT, 70-of-158) two very strong targets in the passing game, while running backs Mason Green and Dalton Nelson combined for nearly 1,000 yards in 2015 and are looking for more this year.
It's more than possible, too: Marshall County's entire offensive line - seniors Cameron Thurman, Bryson Jessup, Dawson Martin, Thad Buchanan and Brandon Raye - return to the fold to keep the backfield safe and upright.
Last year's issues were turnovers, something Merrick hopes will be remedied with a switch to the "Pistol" formation and an emphasis on a properly established run and an overall balanced offense. It will be a simple run game relying on inside power, which will allow the offense to rollout along the sidelines.
"We're looking to outnumber teams at the point of attack," he added. "What hurt us most last year was the turnover battle.
"But I think we're in a position to do something we haven't done in west Kentucky in awhile."
And that's have a winning season - something the players and fans in Draffenville haven't had since a 6-5 finish in 2011.
Despite depth, it won't be easy. The Marshals open at the four-time defending state champion Mayfield Cardinals before hosting four straight games through September.
Christian County will undoubtedly be stout with the return of signalcaller Kolbe Langhi (2,386 yards, 22 TDs, 7 INTs, 163-for-282), wideout and Western Kentucky commit Keyron Catlett, who led the Colonels with 797 yards and seven touchdowns on 62 catches, and wide receiver/defensive back Kenneth Pajor.
But the Colonels will miss the production of all-around athlete Ziyon Kenner, who transferred to Bowling Green after putting up 799 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns with 28 catches, 482 yards and five more scores last fall.
En route to an 11-2 season, the Owensboro Red Devils edged Graves County 20-19 in Mayfield and gashed the Marshals 50-7 at home. Running back Landon Board returns for his senior season after putting up 1,804 yards (139 ypg.) and 21 touchdowns. His quarterback, fellow senior Zach Gross, will look to build upon his 15-touchdown, 10-interception, 63-percent completion rate from a year ago.
Apollo will be also be looking for a much better season after finishing 3-8 in 2015 - their only wins coming against Marshall County, Muhlenberg County and Logan County.
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