With nine starters returning to both sides of the ball, Lookout Valley High School football coach Tony Webb expected to erase the memory of last year's struggles.
He also believed the Yellow Jackets could become a threat to advance deep into the playoffs if just one gifted player lived up to his potential.
That player, junior Jamal Jones, has been every bit as valuable as Jackets coaches hoped for, and every bit as difficult to corral as opponents feared. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Jones ranks among the area's rushing leaders with 1,358 yards and 15 touchdowns, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. He also moved from safety to outside linebacker and has made more than 40 tackles, intercepted two passes and returned one of those for a TD.
"He's everything you want in a leader," Webb said of Jones, for whom the offense was revamped during the offseason so he could get the ball more. "You can rely on him even when things are going bad, and you just know he'll always do the right thing.
"When he makes a mistake, he's the first to come over to me and apologize for messing up. One game this year he had cramps and apologized over and over for having to come out of the game. It was 98 degrees and he hadn't come off the field until he started cramping, and the first thing he thinks to do is apologize for not being out on the field to help us."
By becoming a leader on and off the field, Jones has helped the Yellow Jackets go from just two wins last year to a solid 7-3 and second-place finish in District 6-A. They have won four straight games going into Friday's first-round playoff game at Sunbright (7-3).
Opposing defenses focusing so much on stopping Jones has allowed junior quarterback Vann Scribner to complete more than 50 percent of his passes for more than 900 yards. Nearly 600 of those yards have gone to junior receiver Chris Walton, and Lookout Valley has averaged 300 yards rushing and more than 100 passing per game and has scored four or more TDs eight times.
Lookout Valley never punted during one four-game stretch ending the regular season.
"Going into our game against them, we didn't see anybody on film who could tackle [Jones] when he got into open space," said coach Vic Grider from reigning state champion South Pittsburg. "We don't see a lot of people that we worry about not being able to catch if they get a step, but he's one of those guys.
"He's dangerous when he turns the corner, and the thing that makes him a complete back is he's tough running between the tackles. You have to respect him because he's just a good football player. I guarantee you Sunbright hasn't seen anybody like him all year, so I'd be willing to bet he gives them fits."
Despite having won four of its last five games of the regular season, Sunbright is just 1-8 all-time in the playoffs, including a loss to Lookout Valley in 2000.
The Jackets, meanwhile, will be trying to advance to the second round for the first time in four years. The program has never gotten to the quarterfinals.
"Our goal is to be as balanced as we can every game," Webb said. "We've got enough weapons that we're OK if people want to load up to stop Jamal. He's still going to get his carries because we're confident enough in him to make something positive, because he's an aggressive, physical runner who would just as soon run you over as run around you.
"I'm not saying how far I think we can go this year, but with the way our offense is clicking right now, and especially having a guy like Jamal to give it to, I like our chances."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.