JACKSONVILLE — There are lots of unanswered questions about the Jacksonville Christian football team as the Thunder opens its season in Hoover on Friday against Shades Mountain Christian. Those questions primarily involve finding replacements for former two-way starters Cody Blohm, Dakota Crook, Tyler Morales and Will Parris.

“I think they’re looking forward to playing but it is hard for me to have an enthusiastic practice when it’s 96, 97, 98 degrees out there and (Wednesday) we were in that area,” veteran JCA coach Tommy Miller said before Thursday’s practice.

The heat is a factor everywhere but it is particularly an issue for small schools with short rosters, programs where almost everyone who starts on offense also starts on defense.

“When you’re running 20 kids and 14 or 15 are doing everything all the time, the heat has really been a factor. I’ve taken pads off in the middle of practice. … That’s held us back. I went in shorts and t-shirts (Wednesday),” Miller said. “It was just so hot. I couldn’t see taking a chance this close to Friday night of having something happen.”   

Senior quarterback Daylon Brackett is the only starter returning in the backfield. Brackett had a hand in 38 touchdowns for JCA last season. He completed 17 touchdown passes, rushed for 20 scores and returned one punt for a touchdown while accounting for 3,584 all-purpose yards. He also kicked a field goal, 21 extra points and tallied four 2-point conversions.

Junior Andre Garner, a starter at wide receiver and slot receiver last year, moves to tailback. Thomas Orms, who started at tackle in 2013 as a sophomore, will be the new fullback. Sophomore Jayden Mitchell moves into the slot.  

The Thunder returns senior Kris Armprester and freshman Walker Messer as starters at wide receiver. Armprester was on the receiving end of 13 of Brackett’s 17 touchdown passes and made a total of 54 catches good for 1,323 yards. However, he has missed practice time recently with a leg injury and his availability for tonight’s game is questionable at best.     

In the trenches, junior Jonah Parker returns at center. On one side of Parker, Miller will pair returning starters Josh Thornton and Keith Trantham at guard and tackle respectively. Trantham is a senior and Thornton a junior. Senior Dalton Hughes, junior Andrew Stone and sophomore Ian Bonds will combine on the opposite side of the line.  

Opponents simply outscored JCA last year and Miller has been working to shore up the defense.

“We’ve made a couple of changes that we’re hoping will help,” he said Thursday. “We moved Keith Trantham to a defensive end and Jayden Mitchell back to a linebacker.”

The moves will put Mitchell at one outside linebacker. Garner will be the middle linebacker and sophomore Josh Boling will be on the outside opposite Mitchell. Orms will play at the other end on defense, where he was a starter last year. The interior on the defensive line will come from Thornton, Hughes and Bonds with Parker and Stone in relief.

Messer returns at safety and Brackett was the starter at one cornerback last year. Freshman Elijah McCormick should get the nod at the other corner.  

The Thunder won’t play Aug. 29 and begins region play at Woodville on Sept. 5. With a win at Woodville and a win at home against Coosa Christian the following week, JCA would need just one more region victory to reach the playoffs for the second time in the school’s AHSAA history.