CHRISTIAN HERITAGE LIONS
Head coach: Jay Poag (3-17 in two years here; 10-20 overall)
Returning starters: 9 offensive, 10 defensive
Key players: DL Adrian Cruz (6-1, 220), PK Joe Dixon (5-11, 175), WR Zach Gentry (5-9, 170), DE Duane Jones (6-3, 215), QB Matthew Neff (6-3, 205).
Team strengths: After two years of bumps and lumps, a program that depended heavily on underclassmen now has a little more age and a lot more experience. Poag also expects to be able to use more players overall, cutting down on the number of Lions required to contribute on both offense and defense.
Team concerns: Is it enough? Depth is relative, especially in Class A and particularly at one of the GHSA's smallest schools with a football program. Even though things are better, health will be crucial for the Lions to make progress and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Newcomer to watch: Evan Lester (6-3, 200) showed potential as a freshman last year before breaking an ankle in the Lions' second game. One of the few players expected to go both ways, he'll be a wide receiver and free safety.
Season outlook: Injuries and inexperience hurt Christian Heritage a year ago, but the Lions who endured the rough run may be better for it.
Jones and Neff were returning not only to football but the United States in 2017 — Jones' family spent three years as missionaries in Slovenia, while Neff's father's job took him to the Republic of Georgia for four years — but Poag considers both of them college prospects and crucial players for Christian Heritage.
They're among several Lions who have big expectations with varsity experience now an asset.
"He's certainly a very talented kid, and he's got a season under his belt now," Poag said of Neff, a 4.0 student. "I just think the game slows down for him this year. We've got a lot of targets around him, and I just think he's going to have a really good year for us."
An all-region pick as a junior, Jones gained 20 pounds in the offseason and is expected to get looks from Division I programs, Poag said.
"He had over 100 tackles last year," Poag said. "We're going to stand him up a lot this year, play him some at outside linebacker. He can be a very dominant player. He could be one of the best defensive players, I think, in the state."
Neff's top targets include Gentry, who totaled more than 2,000 yards as a junior and will be counted on as a returner again, too.
"He's one of those kids that's full speed on one step," Poag said. "You see it every day now with these inside slot receivers, where they get the ball in space and they're just hard to catch, hard to tackle. That's him."