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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Baylor linebacker Trey McDonald holds on to McCallie running back B.J. Harris during their annual football rivalry matchup last October. While the Blue Tornado must replace Harris, an all-state selection as a senior last year, in their push for a third straight TSSAA Division II-AAA state title, McDonald returns for the Red Raiders as they work to get back to the title game for the first time in a decade.

In the 24 years since the TSSAA created a separate division for private schools, the largest class within Division II football has routinely had programs win consecutive state titles. McCallie became the fifth such program by earning its second straight DII-AAA championship last December.

The Blue Tornado can become the fourth to own three consecutive titles this season, but to do so they will need a relatively unproven group of players on offense to step up as only three starters return on that side of the ball, and none of them are linemen.

It helps that one of those few starters back is senior quarterback William Riddle, who has bulked up to 185 pounds and is also completely healed from last year's back injury, which will allow more opportunities for him to carry the ball.

"William is a great student of the game and works all the time," McCallie coach Ralph Potter said. "He's gotten stronger over the offseason, and that should really help open up more of our playbook with him because we won't need to alternate somebody else in there when we want to run it."

Riddle is already a proven passer and has one of the area's top targets to throw to in Kenzy Paul, who is committed to Vanderbilt. Replacing running back B.J. Harris, a state Mr. Football finalist last season, will be a priority but could be done by committee.

There are far fewer questions on defense, where six starters are back, including all-state noseguard James Howard, ends Thomas Pilon and Matthew Plunkett, and linebackers Aaron Crowder — a three-year starter — Kane Smith and Carson Gentle, who already has offers from multiple Southeastern Conference programs.

"All of those front seven guys are really physical," Potter said. "They're great competitors who have all played a lot of meaningful snaps.

"We've had success for a while, and I believe we have the ingredients to continue that."

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Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Baylor coach Phil Massey has multiple college prospects on his roster this season as the Red Raiders work to return to the top of their East/Middle Region and all of TSSAA Division II-AAA.

Meanwhile, even as Baylor has dealt with the frustration of watching the rival Blue Tornado win back-to-back titles, the Red Raiders have actually not been far from returning to that level. Since playing for a state crown a decade ago, Baylor has reached the semifinals three times and the quarterfinals four others, including each of the past two seasons.

Along with Montgomery Bell Academy and Knoxville Catholic, the Red Raiders are the biggest threats to dethroning McCallie within DII-AAA's East/Middle Region, while Father Ryan and Pope John Paul II have been traditionally dangerous as well.

This year Baylor has 10 starters back and as good a collection of college prospects as any team in the state. That includes Army-committed defensive lineman Bridger Knee, who helped his previous school in Bowling Green, Kentucky, win a state title last fall before transferring. Also, linebacker Trey McDonald is committed to Virginia and linebacker Dacorian Jones-Montgomery has multiple offers, as does junior offensive linemen Brycen Sanders.

Junior running back Caleb Hampton (5-10, 205) is also likely to pick up a list of offers as he is expected to have a breakout season after averaging 9.5 yards per carry last year. Canadian transfer Hugues Picard (5-11, 185) would give Baylor a dual threat if he wins the starting quarterback role.

"A lot of times when you have guys with college exposure, people translate that into we're going to be really good, but that's not always the case," Red Raiders coach Phil Massey said. "You have to have that continuity of everyone understanding their roles and playing well together, too. I believe we have that, but until we get on the field and compete together, you don't know for sure."

Three starters on the offensive line are also back, but all will be playing different positions than last year. Bo Black (6-5, 310) moved from right tackle to center, and Sanders slides from right guard to left tackle.

On defense, John Emendorfer, who led the team in tackles and earned all-region status as a sophomore last year, returns at linebacker. Tony Boggs (6-4, 250), a junior who transferred from middle Tennessee, will also help solidify the front.

"A big key," Massey said, "will be how many of the guys without as much game experience step up and take advantage of their opportunity."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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