Pads will begin popping loudly throughout the Chattanooga area Monday morning as high school football teams in Tennessee begin practicing in full gear. As teams begin to focus on their season openers, a month or even less from now, some must quickly find replacements for departed stars from last season.
Having new guys step up to fill the roles of departed stars is a ritual every team faces each year, versatility, game-breaking speed and toughness make some players harder to replace than others. Here are the top five biggest sets of shoes to fill from last season:
1. Darrell Bridges (Ridgeland), running back: The Presbyterian Universiity signee was the backbone of the offense, rushing for 2,361 yards and 39 touchdowns as the Panthers reached a state title game for the first time in program history. And while other teams have to replace multiple stars, none have bigger holes to fill than the Panthers, who also must replace 5-star safety Vonn Bell. Based on how Bridges shouldered the load during crunch time in the playoff run, averaging nearly 200 yards each postseason game and playing linebacker, he casts a very difficult shadow to step out from.
* Time to shine: Noah Cooper, a 5-foot-10, 215-pound senior who got numerous quality carries against first-team defenses. He ran for more than 800 yards last year as one of the four members of the Panthers' rotating backfield.
* Quote: "He has quality game experience. He was in the mix last year with all of our backs as one of the four we rotated. He's been there at crunch time. He's got great balance and vision, and that makes him a tough running back. His skills fit our scheme perfectly. Whether it's practice or a game, he's full-tilt every play." -- Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis
2. Taylor Lamb (Calhoun), quarterback: The Appalachian State signee led the Yellow Jackets to back-to-back state championship games, winning Georgia's Class AA his junior year, and threw for more than 7,000 yards and 76 touchdowns in those two seasons. Lamb was Georgia's Gatorade player of the year last year after completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,498 yards and 36 TDs.
* Time to shine: Fields Chapman, a 6-2, 200-pound senior who has been in the program and knows the system. Aside from being comfortable within the Yellow Jackets' spread style and having a strong arm and plenty of targets to choose from, Chapman hasn't faced big-time competition yet. He threw for just more than 200 yards last season in mop-up duty.
* Quote: "He's been in our system for three years and a quarterback all that time. It's not like he's making a position change. He knows where to throw the ball. We're not asking him to be Taylor, but I believe he can be a really good quarterback for us." -- Calhoun coach Hal Lamb
3. Reese Phillips (Signal Mountain), quarterback: The Kentucky signee was a two-year starter, leading the Eagles to the playoffs both seasons and throwing for 2,274 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. He was a receiver as a sophomore, helping SIgnal Mountain claim its state title. His experience and ability ensured that the Eagles never were out of a game.
* Time to shine: Jack Teter, a 6-1, 205-pound junior with a strong arm and the athletic ability to hurt opposing defenses with his feet. Despite his physical tools, however, he's played only in junior varsity games and late-game mop-up situations.
* Quote: "He's a big strong kid who knows the offense, and he should only get better as he gets more experience. We believe he could be a really good one for us for a while." -- Signal Mountain coach Bill Price
4. Brandon Walters (Howard), two-way lineman: The 6-6, 265-pound monster was nearly unblockable last year, leading the area with 27 tackles for loss as well as 11.5 sacks and 98 total tackles.
* Time to shine: Chavelle Gladden is a 6-foot, 265-pounder and the Hustlin' Tigers' strongest player in the weight room. He was injured in the second game last season and missed several games but is healthy and motivated now and will play offensive guard and defensive tackle.
* Quote: "He's very strong and powerful and tough to stop. If he's motivated like I think he will be, especially coming off the injury, he could be really tough on a lot of opponents." -- Howard coach Mike Calloway
5. Jamal Jones (Lookout Valley), running back: He was a three-year starter who ran for more than 1,000 yards each season, earning all-state honors twice. He had a good mix of size (180 pounds) and speed and a knack for making opponents miss tackles. Class 1A teams typically don't just replace that kind of talent.
* Time to shine: Jaylen Wynn, a 5-11, 170-pound junior, was a starter last year and ran for more than 400 yards. He has speed and quickness but will need to prove he's durable enough for the increased number of carries he'll get.
* Quote: "He's a guy with a lot of ability, but he just hasn't had the chance to show it. But now it's his time to step up and he's a perfect fit for our style of offense, so I think he could do some good things for us." -- Lookout Valley coach Tony Webb