Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of prep football region previews involving area teams. Coming Thursday are Georgia's Regions 7-AA and 6-A.
On the surface it would seem Baylor's and McCallie's 2018 football seasons had little in common. But the one similarity is that the end result was not at all what either program had hoped for.
McCallie carried state championship potential throughout the season before coming up painfully close in a 10-7 semifinal loss on the road. Meanwhile, Baylor struggled through a variety of issues that led to a second consecutive losing record.
With just over a week remaining before the new season kicks off, both teams share renewed hope, but again for differing reasons. McCallie's Blue Tornado bring back eight offensive starters from a group of playmakers that averaged 30 points in 10 wins. And while Baylor also brings back most of its starters on both sides of the ball, the infusion of new talent is what could help turn things around for a program that reached the semifinals each year from 2014 to 2016 and played for Division II-AAA state titles in 2010 and 2011.
Three junior transfers — quarterback Neyland Jean (6-foot-3, 205), athlete Elijah Howard (5-11, 175) and two-way lineman Sam Christensen (6-1, 280) — are expected to fill needed gaps and blend with a talented group of returners to boost Baylor's outlook.
Jean has a strong arm and a solid build that could make him a threat to run in short-yardage situations or when he scrambles, and Howard — a Tennessee Volunteers commitment — is a burner who can play a variety of offensive positions as well as bring help to the secondary.
Receivers Mekos Baker (6-4, 175) and Gabriel Stulce (5-11, 175) are back, while junior safety Riley Jenne (6-0, 170), who has great speed and led the team in interceptions last year and was second in total tackles, is already drawing recruiting interest. If tight end and defensive end Isaiah Golonka (6-3, 230) can avoid the injuries that limited him last season, he could be a big-time contributor on either side of the ball.
Running back Mykal Jones suffered a torn ACL during preseason last year but looks healthy again and is ready to prove himself. Jones has great vision and is versatile enough to help the team both in the secondary and the offensive backfield.
The Red Raiders have plenty of game experience up front, led by five offensive linemen who started last season, and the secondary has more depth and speed than in the past few years. Daniel Oliver (6-3, 305) is a three-year starter, and Seth Johnson (6-1, 280) is versatile enough to play any position on the offensive front if needed.
Defensively, linebacker Noah Martin, who recently committed to Samford University, has two years of starting experience and was Baylor's leading tackler last year.
"We have a good mixture of experience and some new guys with a lot of talent and potential," Red Raiders coach Phil Massey said. "It's a matter of staying healthy and having all those guys learning to play together, but they're focused on making this a much better season than we've had recently."
Also, the schedule is more manageable than in years past with nonregion games against Brainerd, Central, Chattanooga Christian and Tyner. The Red Raiders will host three of their last four opponents, including rival McCallie.
Among the key returners for the Blue Tornado offense are all-state quarterback DeAngelo Hardy (5-11, 185), who's committed to Kennesaw State and was a Mr. Football semifinalist last year. This will be his third season as the starting quarterback, and after establishing himself as a dangerous runner, he should be an improved passer after offseason shoulder surgery.
Backfield mate B.J. Harris (5-11, 200) has a nice blend of speed and power, and Gavin Cagle (5-9, 170) is a transfer from Christian Academy of Knoxville who is an all-state-caliber wrestler and a versatile enough athlete to play in the backfield or at slot receiver.
All but one starter returns on the McCallie offensive line, which includes junior Austin Gentle (6-3, 275), who already is drawing recruiting interest from several Southeastern Conference programs and plays with a nastiness up front.
The defense, anchored by four-star prospect Jay Hardy — who has offers from more than 20 FBS programs including Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and LSU — likely will be the determining factor for whether the Blue Tornado can clear that next hurdle and return to a state title game. Only three starters return to that side of the ball.
"We want to develop a better passing game so we can be more balanced this year, but we feel good about our ability to run the ball," Blue Tornado coach Ralph Potter said. "We'll have to bring it along week by week defensively. The kids we've got on that side of the ball will be OK eventually, but they're just not experienced or as physically mature as we were to start last season.
"We've got a couple of (defensive backs) that I'm really confident in back there, but we're still searching to decide who can do what. It's just a matter of getting them experience before we can determine who is ready. We play at Brentwood Academy in week three, so we're aware there's some urgency to getting them ready."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.