2. Familiar faces, new places: The coaching carousel was spinning like expensive rims this offseason. Former Saks coach Clint Smith is at Jacksonville. Former assistant Jonathan Miller has taken over the Wildcats’ helm. Former Cherokee County assistant Nathan Wehunt is at Ohatchee, the post Jason Howard left to return to Spring Garden. Jonathan Nix, who’s guided Ragland to three straight softball state titles, has taken over the reins for Brian Mintz at Ragland, while Ryan Herring will head things up at Lincoln. Former Anniston assistant Damien Dorsey is now the head man in charge at TC Central.
3. Piedmont’s Jamie Major: Of course the Bulldogs, who’ve gone a combined 37-5 the past three seasons, including a state title in 2009, will be a team to watch this season. The team is where Major would rather folks be focusing their attention. But with the majority of the top players in the state making early commitments, Major’s college decision could become all the talk in recruiting circles. The 6-1, 222-pounder is already a two-time all-state performer. He holds an offer from the Big 10’s Indiana but more BCS schools could come looking his way as signing day approaches.
4. Oxford newcomers: As usual, all eyes will be on the Big O come Aug. 30 when it travels to face Georgia powerhouse Carrollton for its season opener. After losing a senior class which included eight college signees, including three Under-All-Americans Kwon Alexander (LSU), Trae Elston (LSU) and Michael Flint (Arkansas State), not to mention three-year starter at quarterback in Jackson Stephens, the Yellow Jackets will need newcomers to step up and fill the void. They’ve got a pair of SEC commits along the defensive front in Trent Simpson and Ulric Jones, both of whom commitments to Mississippi State, and pair of all-county linebackers in DeAngelo Thompson and Wes Caldwell. Junior running back Racean “Rock” Thomas is one of the best players in the nation at his position.
5. Central of Clay County: It’s no secret why the AHSAA tabbed the Volunteers as one of the six teams to participate in its annual Champions Challenge exhibitions in Montgomery. Central, the result of a merger between former bitter rivals Lineville and Clay County has to be the most interesting team heading into the season. Both Lineville and Clay County reached the state semifinals in Class 2A and Class 3A respectively last season. They’ll have plenty of toughness and talent. That’s just how they breed them down that way. Will they primarily run the classic Clay County wishbone or the Lineville version of the spread? All that remains to be seen, but I know one thing. I’d hate to be Trinity, having to prepare to face the Volunteers, a team with little or no film available in Week 1.
6. Small-school ball: Don’t get me wrong. I’m a star gazer. Who doesn’t like watching the big boys do battle? But there’s something about watching iron-man football, where Jimmy and Joe have to play a full 48 minutes on offense, defense and special teams, that’s truly special. Here are several marquee games among the best of Class 1A, 2A and 3A: Glencoe at Piedmont (Week 3), Randolph County at Reeltown (Week 4), Woodland at Randolph County (Week 5), Fyffe at Wellborn (Week 5), Weaver at Saks (Week 7) Wellborn at Woodland (Week 7).
7. Reaction to and enforcement of rule changes: Receivers must retain possession and get their feet in bounds regardless of the opponent’s action to constitute a legal catch. If a player’s helmet comes off while the ball is live, they must sit out a play before reentering the contest. On kickoffs, the kicking team can’t make contact with any member of the receiving team until the ball has crossed the receiving team’s restraining line or is able to recover the kick. These were the most significant among eight rule changes the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Football Rules Committee made for the upcoming season. It’ll be interesting to see how coaches and players respond as well as how efficient officials are in enforcing them.
8. My Picks: I don’t know if you all are looking forward to them, but I sure am. I’m also used to the slander I receive in the streets from making them each week, especially when I pick a team in The Star’s coverage area to lose at home to a team from outside the coverage area. Our readers are great at giving me a hard time. It’s all fun and games and it’s part of what makes this job and this place special.
9. Will the best QB in the county please standup: Last year, the county’s best teams were led by quality signal-callers such as Stephens, Piedmont’s Chris Strott and Donoho’s Teddre Williams. Well, all of those guys graduated. Look for the likes of Anniston’s Spencer Howard, Piedmont’s Cade Bradley, Wellborn’s Judd Smith, Weaver’s Timothy Hawkins and Saks’ Chase Johnson, among others, to lead their teams well this season. The spot is anyone’s for the taking.
10. The Playoffs: I know the first fall jamboree hasn’t been played yet, but the only reason they play the regular season is to get to the postseason. Of course, you’ve got your traditional favorites such as Oxford, Anniston, Piedmont and Alexandria, but I’m interested in seeing who’s going to surprise us and make a run deep into November and possibly December this season. Weaver played state finalist Madison Academy close in a first-round loss last season. Wellborn will take the experience of having done battle with Handley, Clay County and Leeds the past couple of seasons into a new region that includes Fultondale, while Ragland should be an odds-on favorite in Class 1A.
The beauty of it all is that we (and when I say “we” I mean “I”) think we know but we have no idea. The journey to a trip to the Super 6 in Auburn starts today. Let’s go.
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.