There's one big difference for Shawn Jackson going into his second year at the helm of the McCracken County Mustangs -- the team's experience.
After a year when the Mustangs started the season with just four seniors who had played football all four years of high school, they will go into the 2016 campaign with more than two dozen seniors. Most of this year's senior class has played at McCracken since its inception back in 2013.
With plenty of experience coming back to a McCracken team that went 10-3 last year and advanced deeper in the playoffs than it ever had, there is undoubtedly plenty of optimism for 2016.
"We're way ahead of where we were last year at this time," Jackson said. "Every coach will tell you that they have a long way to go right now. We do too, but I like where we're at top to bottom."
A Mustang offense that scored 43 points per game last year will return many of its top players, including Cash Jones -- now in his third year as the starting quarterback for the Mustangs.
Jones threw for 29 touchdown passes last year and averaged nearly 193 passing yards per game, and he will return top receivers Darien Woods and Tyce Daniel, who each hauled in 10 touchdown catches last year with nearly 1,700 yards between them.
Add in Ethan Schaaf and Dalton Lanphear, in addition to a crop of other capable receivers, and Jackson believes his Mustangs can go eight deep at receiver.
"Not only do we have depth there, but we will be able to get it to players who can do something with it after they catch it. Their football IQs are so high," Jackson said.
It'll be a running back by committee for the Mustangs after the graduation of University of Kentucky freshman Zy'Aire Hughes. Cory Fike is the top returner at that position after running for 670 yards last year, with fullback Quamea Jones being the top short-yardage returner following a junior season when he rushed for five touchdowns.
But the offensive success for the Mustangs starts with the offensive line, and Jackson feels good with five players who started games for the Mustangs last year back on the line to protect Jones and form the gaps for the McCracken ball carriers. Will Kitchen at left tackle will help lead a powerful offensive line.
Jones and Quincy Bell will be top players on defensive line, with plenty of competition behind them in the linebacking corps. Inside linebacker Abijah Williams, Skyler Mayes and Colin McCutcheon all return for the Mustangs.
Mason Woley and Kyle Garner, who combined for seven interceptions last year, are the top returners in the secondary.
"We have a lot of guys fighting it out at the other positions in the secondary," Jackson said. "We have talent back there and guy fighting. It's not a matter of talent. We're just fitting the pieces."
With state championship goals, Jackson has placed a schedule in front of the Mustangs that will pit them with three state champions from 2015 -- Mayfield, Bowling Green and Pulaski Academy (Arkansas).
It's all done so the Mustangs can continue their gradual improvement, which Jackson knows they will have to do to win a regional championship or reach Bowling Green in a grueling Class 6A.
"Being state champions has to be the mindset, but we have to get better -- that's the plan every year," he said. "We have to go one game further than we did last year. We have to go to Louisville and win (against the likes of Male, Trinity and St. Xavier). That's our mindset and how we see it."
While McCracken was able to break through to the region championship game for just the first time last season, they've already enjoyed plenty of success against its District 1 teams of its class. McCracken was 5-0 against its district foes last year, outscoring Henderson County, Muhlenberg County, Daviess County and Ohio County 280-86.
Despite just a 4-7 record last season, Henderson's 3-1 district record and 28-14 win over Daviess gave it the No. 2 seed behind McCracken last year. Josh Boston, formerly at Union County, takes over the Colonels program that graduated star running back Damion Carter off its high-octane running attack.
Daviess, a trendy pick to be the top team in the district last year behind McCracken, must replace its own running back, but will take solace in that quarterback Adam Bouchard (191 passing yards per game, 29 touchdowns in 2016) returns for his senior year.
Both Ohio and Muhlenberg finished their 2015 seasons with 5-6 records, with Ohio returning quarterback Heath Simmons (208 passing yards per game) and Muhlenberg returning its own quarterback in Hunter Combs (14 passing touchdowns, 17 rushing touchdowns in 2015).
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