School: Smiths Station High
2013 record: 10-3
Key players: Amonte Caban, Nigel Lawrence, Vada King, Clay Edmonds, Kenny Wimberly
Key game: All region games
Outlook: Smiths Station and Class 7A Region 2 rival Central are in very similar positions heading into the 2014 football season.
Like the Red Devils, the Panthers have already proven to be a program in good shape. They are coming off a 10-win season and a trip to the Class 6A quarterfinals last season. And, despite the loss of the coach that got them there, Mark Rose, appear to still be headed in the right direction.
Smiths Station hired Jason Dukes away from Alpharetta (Ga.) to fill Rose's shoes. Dukes has a history of building a program, having taken Alpharetta from three wins in his first season at the helm to nine in his last. It earned four playoff berths in five years under Dukes.
That's the consistency Smiths Station is hoping for after turning around a program that had not had much success in years. But it wants more than that, too.
Under Dukes, there will be some changes, particularly on offense. While Rose's teams were known for their physical running attacks, Dukes prefers a spread offense and to take what defenses gives through the air as well.
He has stated since coming to Smiths Station that he won't shy away from running the ball to excess if that's what the situation calls for. On the other hand, there might be games where the team gains 300 through the air. For him, it's a matter of balance and finding the right situations to take advantage of defenses in different ways.
The biggest challenge now is that there will be a number of new faces on the offensive side of the ball to go along with the new look.
Former starting quarterback Jerrell Gilmore, who passed well when given the opportunity, graduated after the 2013 season, along with top wide receiver target Johnny Woods. Gone, too, are running backs Devante Marshall and J.J. Dancy.
The offensive line, which was arguably the team's biggest strength a year ago, also experienced a complete overhaul, leaving just one starter returning out of 11 on the offensive side of the ball.
Dalton Sinquefield has been named the starting QB.
The good news in all that is that Dukes has a blank slate with which to install his system, rather than making old dogs learn new tricks.
The other good news is that while the offense may be in flux, the defense is back with a vengeance. A year ago, Smiths Station won games with incredibly stout defense, allowing more than 20 points just three times during the regular season. One of those came in double-overtime against Enterprise, which is now in the Panthers' region.
Despite losing All-Bi-City defensive player of the year Anfernee Moffett, Smiths Station returns defensive back Nigel Lawrence, a South Alabama commitment, and linebackers Amonte Caban and Vada King, among others.
On paper, there's no reason this defense shouldn't be as good or better than 2013.
Asked whether the defense would have to carry the offense early, Dukes rejected that notion out of hand. He expects the offense to be at full strength from the get-go and that, together, the two units can make this an incredibly dangerous team.
It will need to be given the region it plays in. Like Central, it is impossible to pick one game that matters above the others. In arguably the toughest region in the state, any of five teams could take the top seed or miss the playoffs altogether.
David Mitchell, Follow David on Twitter@leprepsports and on Facebook at facebook.com/ledgerenquirersports