Replacing departed stars from the previous season is a ritual every high school football team faces. But whether it's because of versatility, game-breaking speed or just being the toughest hombres on the field, some are tougher to replace than others. Here then are the top five biggest sets of shoes to fill from last season:
1. Alex Kirby
Last year's stats: He was the hammer in the middle of one of the state's top-ranked defenses, leading the area with 141 tackles (98 solo) to go with 12 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries, a touchdown fumble return and a safety.
Time to shine: Chaz Horton (6-0, 200, senior). He started at offensive guard last year and has game experience on defense but now must set the tone on that side of the ball. The coaches say the fact he plays hard on every snap is reason to believe he can take on that role.
Quote: "Alex is a throw-back kid, a hard-nosed type guy who is very, very physical. He loves the contact and had a knack for reading a play and getting there in a hurry to make the stop. We don't expect anybody to completely fill in for what all he could do, but Chaz has a lot of ability." -- Calhoun coach Hal Lamb
2. Brandon Smith
Running back/receiver/defensive back
Last year's stats: One of the most versatile players in the area, he had 1,428 yards and 21 TDs rushing as well as 709 yards and eight TDs receiving. He also provided key plays as the strong safety on defense.
Time to shine: Senior Jeremiah Gilbert (6-1, 175) has been one of the Warriors' best receivers for two years and still will be counted on heavily in that role. However, his experience and versatility likely mean he also will get some carries out of the backfield, and he is expected to be a defensive leader at safety.
Quote: "Brandon's a very explosive kid who could avoid defenders and make it look easy for us. He's one of the better backs this school has had in a while. We don't have one kid who can do what he did." -- Bledsoe County coach Jason Reel
3. Maleek Rooks
Last year's stats: He totaled more than 2,200 all-purpose yards and had 17 touchdowns and was the Panthers' region's player of the year. He also intercepted four passes.
Time to shine: Senior Jacoby Ramsey will play running back, quarterback, receiver, linebacker and free safety this season. He moves well and has particularly good hands.
Quote: "The only thing we can do is play together as a team. No one man is going to fill [Rooks'] role." -- Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson.
4. Justin Houston
Last year's stats: He ran for more than 1,100 yards, averaging 11 per carry, and had 13 touchdowns. He also had more than 500 receiving yards, averaging 20 per catch, and five reception TDs. He set the table for the offense as a kick and punt returner, and he returned an interception for a score in a two-point win over Ooltewah.
Time to shine: It will take the combination of juniors Baylor Terrell (5-8, 150) and Dee Crisp (6-2, 190) to give the Bears the big-play capability that Houston brought.
Quote: "The biggest thing was Justin's speed. At any moment he could change the game for us." -- Bradley coach Damon Floyd
5. Barrett Gouger
Last year's stats: The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Vanderbilt signee became the fourth Baylor player to win the state's Division II Mr. Football award. A three-year starter on the offensive line, where the Red Raiders ran much of their attack behind his blocks, he also played on the defensive line during key games, including throughout the playoffs.
Time to shine: Derek Green (6-0, 315), a senior two-year starter, was the right guard but moved to left tackle. His experience, size and athletic footwork can protect the quarterback's back side.
Quote: "Not only was [Gouger] a consistent player on the line, but he was a leader in the huddle. He did some two-way playing for us when we needed him. When it was crunch time, he was the guy we counted on to run behind for the tough yards." -- Baylor coach Phil Massey
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...