Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of prep football region previews involving area teams. Coming Wednesday is Division II-AAA.
On a football team loaded with returning experience, the only thing last year's Division II-AA East Region championship did was leave Notre Dame wanting more. Rather than celebrating the league title, the 14 returning starters, as well as coaches and everyone else involved with the Fighting Irish program, spent the offseason working on the details needed to avoid a repeat of last year's disappointing one-point playoff loss that prevented them from a shot at returning to the state championship game.
"That (34-33 loss to Franklin Road Academy) really changed how we look at the little things," said Notre Dame coach Charles Fant, who guided his team to the state title game in 2017. "Us coaches always did, but now the players understand why we're crazy about the details.
"Because of that loss, the kids understand that was one of the rare times where we didn't get done what we were capable of, and they don't want to repeat that feeling. We're so far ahead of where we were last year in organization and execution. Light years ahead."
Notre Dame had won nine straight — by an average of 43-16 — before the playoff defeat. Now, with added inspiration, the Irish begin the season with a front wall of what Fant called the most talented group of linemen he's had. Senior Jacob Brigman (6-foot-2, 275) and junior Maverick Tucker (6-2, 290) will anchor both sides of the line but must remain healthy as the biggest concern the team faces is a lack of depth.
Running behind them will be a trio of athletes with track speed, led by senior Jeffrey Watkins, who recently was timed in 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has plenty of big-game experience. Watkins has shared the ball-carrying load each of the past two seasons but now will be the focus of an offense that also has Daishun Sims — who could play at every skill position — and Khalil Spence, who are just as capable of ripping off big gains. Quarterback Dallas Brown (6-0, 225) gives the Irish a power runner in their single-wing offense.
Chattanooga Christian also returns a good bit of experience as the Chargers seek to take the next step from competing for the playoffs to region title contenders. Among the 13 starters back are massive two-way linemen Keano Roberts (6-5, 305) and Colt Sinor (6-3, 290).
The junior and senior classes are strong, particularly in the offensive backfield where the Chargers will have more speed than in recent years. Seniorr Roderick Young, juniors Traveon "Tink" Scott, JaMichael Baxter and quarterback Sam Hall, plus several receivers with better than average speed, give them plenty of big-play potential.
Baxter, who injured a knee just before the season began last year, is back healthy, and the track sprinter brings an explosiveness to the backfield. The Chargers open the season with an extremely tough three-game stretch — against McCallie, at Baylor and hosting defending 1A champion Whitwell — before settling in for six straight region games.
"We want to come out of those first three games knowing who we are and hopefully find the depth we'll need to be ready for our region games," CCS coach Mark Mariakis said. "Opening up against those three should help us answer any lingering questions about what we can do, and then we'll have an off week to gauge where we are before getting ready for the region."
The experience theme continues with Silverdale Baptist Academy, which also brings back 13 starters from a playoff team. There are only four seniors and 19 freshmen on the roster, so the future remains bright past this fall.
One of those seniors who is expected to be a two-way contributor is tight end/defensive end Jordan Sanders (6-4, 215), who is drawing recruiting interest from several FCS programs. Quarterback Wade Jewell and running back Connor Delashmitt, who started as a freshman, also will be counted on heavily on offense as well as in the secondary.
Coming off a winless season, Boyd Buchanan made a coaching change and has added more athletes to its roster. Both moves should pay off with a much more competitive team this season. New head coach Jeremy Bosken's biggest hurdle may be changing the mindset after the program's struggles of the past two seasons.
Eli Evans is arguably the team's best athlete and likely will get action at a variety of positions. JaMichael McGoy is another versatile two-way player who will get plenty of carries on offense and should make the secondary much improved, while 220-pound David Dixon gives the Buccaneers a bruising option in the backfield.
Grace Academy, the only area team competing in Division II-A, had the best season in program history last year but now must replace eight starters on both sides of the ball. The most experience returns up front, where five seniors likely will make up the line, led by Austin Starr (6-3, 300).
Justin Carter likely will get his hands on the ball a lot and is back in the secondary for a defense that allowed just 15 points per game last year.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.