East Ridge coach Tracy Malone knew being selected preseason No. 1 in the District 6-AA football coaches' poll was a distinct possibility.
What few of the coaches foresaw was defending champion Hixson tying the Pioneers for that top spot with the Wildcats having a new coach -- Dan Duff returning to replace Jason Fitzgerald -- and having to replace their quarterback, their top two running backs and all of their secondary.
"I never liked the term rebuilding. I want to get to the point where it's reloading each year," Duff said. "We have a good nucleus back. If people to expect them to be [at the top], I think they're ready to handle that. They know what it's like to be in the playoffs and reach the third round, and I expect the younger players to learn from the older players. You do it on the field, but I think the kids will be excited where they were picked."
Duff, who coached at Hixson from 1996 to 2001, is one of four new head coaches in the league, joining Central's Ryan Mallory, Howard's Mark Teague and Red Bank's Chad Grabowski. Mallory steps in for John Allen, Teague for Michael Calloway and Grabowski for E.K. Slaughter. Allen wound up taking a position at Powell High near Knoxville, and Slaughter is at Heritage in Ringgold.
"I guess the fact we had so many starters returning (15), [being voted to a top spot] made sense, but like I said during the meeting, I think any team in the league is capable of winning on any given Friday night," Malone said.
Tyner was voted third in the poll, Howard fourth, Central fifth, Red Bank sixth and Brainerd seventh.
Red Bank assistant coach Matt Bowman, filling in for Grabowski at the meeting, is in his first year with the Lions but had an outsider's view of 6-AA from his most recent days at Bradley Central.
"The league's reputation is that there are a ton of athletes -- you just don't have as many of them [as 5-AAA]," he said.
Malone wasn't surprised that Hixson was picked as a co-No. 1.
"Dan has been there and had success before. It's not really like there's a new coach coming in, and Hixson has shown the last two years that they know how to win," said Malone, who'll start the year with a handful of third- and fourth-year starters, including quarterback Jo Jo Tillery and linebacker Deangelo Johnson.
The East Ridge coach, entering his third season, has become familiar with the league's talent and never hesitated when asked about challengers.
"Red Bank and Tyner are probably two others that are right there," he said. "Red Bank's got an awful lot of players, and Tyner -- well, you know Wayne Turner's always going to have those rascals ready to play."
Red Bank, with 60 players, has more than double the number of bodies the Lions finished with in the 2013 season.
If there was a surprise, Malone said, it would be Howard being No. 4 in the poll.
"It's good for Howard and it is pretty cool to see the changes Mark (one of Malone's assistants last season) has made. I think those kids have taken to him and to the changes he has made," Malone said.
With 30 players on the present roster -- and he's expecting 10-15 more once school starts -- Howard likely is the second smallest team in the group, a notch ahead of Brainerd.
The Hustlin' Tigers are small only in total numbers, though, and when they take the field in a wishbone-style offense, the smallest lineman will be in the neighborhood of 315 pounds.
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.