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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/3/16. Christian Heritage head coach Jay Poag works with his team during practice on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

Head coach: Jay Poag (10-21 in three years here; 17-24 overall)

Returning starters: 9 offensive; 9 defensive

Key players: PK Joe Dixon (6-0, 180); WR-DB Ben Hermann (6-3, 190); LB-OL Mitchell Herndon (6-1, 220); WR-DB Brayden Johnson (6-3, 190); RB-LB Gage Leonard (5-9, 185); WR-FS Evan Lester (6-3, 210); DB-RB Solomon Locke (6-0, 190); DE Riley Reece (6-3, 210); RB-LB Ethan Smith (5-11, 210); LB Ben Williamson (5-11, 215).

Team strengths: Having starters back at 18 positions is obviously helpful. One of the biggest assets is Dixon, who is rated among the top 100 high school kickers in the nation and the top 10 in Georgia by Kohl's, which operates camps for specialists.

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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/3/16. Christian Heritage head coach Jay Poag works with his team during practice on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

Team concerns: Poag believes new starting quarterback Christian Thomas (6-1, 180) is talented, but the coach knows the sophomore's lack of varsity experience means there are some lessons he must learn on the playing field.

Breakout candidates: Three running backs are ready to help make things easier for Thomas and the Lions in their spread offense. Poag believes Smith has a big senior year in store, and Leonard and Locke are sophomores who started every game last season and could contribute more thanks to their offseason progress.

Season outlook: After winning one game in Poag's first season in charge at Christian Heritage and two in his second, the Lions leaped last year.

They rallied from a 26-0 halftime deficit to defeat Class AAAA's LaFayette, beat a ranked opponent (Mount Zion-Carroll) for the first time since joining the GHSA in 2012 and held the top spot in the first Class A private school power rankings of 2018. The Lions lost three of their next four games but recovered well enough to post their first winning record since 2013.

The upward trend looks likely to continue and having all those starters back makes a midseason stumble seem less probable, so it's legitimate for the Lions to chase what would be their first region title.

"We had another great offseason — our kids have really bought in to what we asked them to do with our strength and speed program," Poag said. "We were playing with these kids a couple years ago and they weighed 165, and now they weigh 225. We've grown up, and expectations are high. We want to go compete for championships. That's our mindset and where we're at right now."

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