Offenses ruled the day in Georgia Region 7-AAAA football a year ago, and with the quality of skill players back, scoreboards again will be plenty busy this season.
The north sub-region's top four teams a year ago -- Rome, Sequoyah, Dalton and Northwest Whitfield -- each averaged more than 25 points per game and more than 35 in wins. Among those teams, Dalton returns the most offense, so much so that rival coaches say the Catamounts could have their most potent attack in years.
"Dalton probably has the best skill kids they've had since I've been here," veteran Northwest coach Mike Falleur said. "They've got some special kids on that side of the ball."
Dalton, which won its first five games a year ago before losing three of its final five in missing the playoffs, returns seven offensive starters, including senior quarterback Stryker Brown, who passed for 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns. Senior fullback Shaquon Moore returns after leading the team with 900 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns last year. He's joined by sophomore tailback Tre Beck, whose big-play potential forced the movement of last year's tailback, Chris White, to linebacker.
"I think this offense could be really good this year," said Brown, who also has experienced wideouts Chas Thomason, Tevin Collins and Trae Washington at his disposal. "We've got great experience back and a great group of skill players. I think we can be more balanced this year."
The Cats won't be alone with the offensive firepower. Defending sub-region champ Rome, which reached the state semifinals a year ago, returns dynamic running back Reggie Whatley (1,200 yards) and his 4.4 speed in the 40 behind an experienced offensive line. The Wolves must find a replacement for Jamalcom Griffith at quarterback and P.J. Greene at fullback.
Though Rome suffered heavy graduation losses, many feel they are still the team to beat, especially with a defense returning seven starters.
"This region is going to be tough again," Northwest's Falleur said. "You start looking around at what people lost and what they have back, and you have to start with Rome. They lost a bunch, but they never cease to have those kind of kids on the roster."
Last year's surprise team, Sequoyah, also returns several playmakers, including college prospect running backs Dominique Swopes and Dalton Trevino. Quarterback Ben Rogers is back to lead the team's wing-T attack.
"Sequoyah has most of their kids back, and they have the best back in the region in Dominique Swoops," Falleur said. "They lost their coach, Sid Maxwell, and in my opinion he is as good as there is, but they'll still be tough."
Falleur's Bruins may lack the firepower of the other teams, but he's counting on depth and versatility to get his team back to the playoffs following last year's 6-4 campaign. Replacing all-star quarterback Dean Haynes is just one of the keys to the season.
"This is the most questions we've got to answer heading into a football season at any one time, so I don't know what to expect from us," Falleur said. "We don't have the elite athlete, but we have several players who work hard and will give it all they can."
Defensive end/tight end Nermin Delic, a University of Maryland commit, will head an aggressive defense that also includes end Ben Johnson and linebackers Jay Motley and Zach Sloan.
"Nermin is the anchor, and it's nice to know that few people will have anybody better than him," Falleur said. "Not many people are going to be able to block him."
Woodland surprised many by going 5-5 a year ago and returns one of the region's top playmakers in 5-foot-7 running back Vincent Mitchell, whose 4.4 speed gives the team an outisde threat in the Wildcats' unusual wishone offense. Tight end Stephen Michaels (6-foot-5, 230) is the team's top college prospect.
Transfers have hurt Cass, although the Colonels still have a solid offensive line and a secondary led by college prospect A.C. Lee and the team's best two-way threat, defensive back and wide receiver Tarris Batiste.
Murray County has its third head coach in four years in John Zeigler, a longtime assistant who learned under the school's most successful coach, Bill Napier. Zeigler has nine starters returning on each side the ball, including quarterback Austin Williams. The strength of the Indians, though, lies in its younger classes.
In the south sub-region, surprising region champion Sprayberry, Hillgrove and star quarterback Synjn Days and Hiram are expected to be the top contenders.
Region 7-AAAA at a glance
Team on the rise: It's unusual to put Dalton in this category, but after missing the playoffs a year ago, the Catamounts expect to return this season with their potent offense.
Nightmare schedule: Dalton not only has to open at Class AA state runner-up Calhoun, one of its 7-AAAA crossover games is against region champ Sprayberry, and the Cats have to travel to rival Northwest Whitfield in week nine.
Dream schedule: Though Northwest Whitfield has a nightmare stretch late with consecutive games against Rome, Sequoyah and Dalton, it plays only one team in the first six weeks coming off a winning season.
Best game: For sub-region dominance, the Rome at Dalton contest on Oct. 23 is huge. However, no game will top the Dalton-at-Calhoun season opener for area enthusiasts.
Biggest shoes to fill: Finding a replacement for quarterback Dean Haynes is the top priority at Northwest. As camp opened, Chad Keeter and Tyler Shephard were sharing snaps.
Playoff bound: Dalton, Rome and Sequoyah from the north sub-region, Hillgrove from the south.