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This time last year we still believed in the infallibility of a single titan in 4A – South Warren. The Spartans had completely leveled the landscape in 2015, and most believed they would do the same again. But along the way, they stumbled and the veneer cracked, and Johnson Central – the powerhouse that was seemingly forever a bridesmaid – picked up the pieces and flexed their might. The Golden Eagles crushed their 4A playoff competition by a combined 259-15, which included a 150-0 run in their final three games, taking home their long-awaited first state title. And they enter this year as the overwhelming favorite, just like South Warren was. So perhaps, there may be some hope for others. Or maybe Johnson Central will be able to back it up where the Spartans could not.

1. Johnson Central (2016: 14-1; State Champions)
Head Coach: Jim Matney

Not to belabor the comparisons between South Warren’s run in 2015 and Johnson Central’s run last year, but the Golden Eagles played like they were trying to erase everyone’s memory of 2015 by obliterating the pace the Spartans set. Johnson Central lost a single game at the hands of 3A champion Belfry, in which they doubled up the Pirates’ offensive yardage total, winning everywhere but the scoreboard. No other team on their schedule played them within 17 points, and no other team in the state of Kentucky came within 27. Twelve of their last 13 games they scored 43 points or more and shut out their opponents four times, with eight others being held to single digits. Their 8.07 PPG allowed was easily the best in 4A, as was their 45.47 PPG scored. Johnson Central utterly dominated.

And a whole lot of that dominance returns.

Defensively the Golden Eagles will likely take a step back, but offensively, they’re not likely to miss a beat. First and foremost is the return JR RB Joe Jackson, who topped 2000 yards with 31 touchdowns as part of a sophomore campaign that saw him average 13 yards every time he carried the ball. And this guy is back for two seasons! Jackson will be heavily leaned upon again, but he isn’t alone. Alongside him in the rushing attack will be three of the next four highest rushers from a year ago with SO Cody Rice (44/543/4), SR Blake Gamble (58/473/7), and SR Trevor May (69/408/9). Collectively, the four represent over 75% of the ground attack from a season ago for Johnson Central – a team that really likes to run the ball. Trigger man Riley Preece also returns under center to build off his freshman campaign, where he was 62/87 for 1,254 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. Plenty of beef on the OL returns, with two starters and four backups returning from a season ago. The only gray cloud in the sky for the Johnson Central offense is the loss of most receiving production from last season, including transcendent athlete Geordan Blanton, who housed just under one out of every two catches en route to ten receiving touchdowns. Replacing his production will be key. Five starters return on the defensive side, but the Golden Eagles will have to adjust to the loss of standouts Josh Ervin, Nathaniel Wilcox, and Devon Patrick, the team’s three leading tacklers a season ago. 4A typically features few pass-heavy offenses, but Johnson Central will also be challenged by the loss of three players in their secondary that accounted for ten of the eighteen interceptions notched by the team in 2016. Matt Horn and Dawson Stalker return to anchor the defensive line while Devin Johnson and Evan Adams will spearhead the linebacking corps.

Johnson Central again opens with Capital (WV), which gave them their toughest contest outside of Belfry a season ago, and the schedule by and large tracks the same with a lot of familiar faces. If Johnson Central gets by Capital, it is highly likely that the road trip to Belfry is all that is standing between them and a perfect regular season – and probably a perfect 15-0 record.

2. Wayne County (2016: 11-3; State Semifinalist)
Head Coach: Shawn Thompson

Wayne County’s 2016 campaign went very much the same way their 2015 campaign did. They took a somewhat surprising loss to 6A Bryan Station in double overtime, which immediately reset expectations for the team. But they buckled down and slowly, and methodically, built back, winning 11 of their next 12 games before bowing out to Johnson Central in the state semifinals. Unlike 2015, their 2016 loss to Johnson Central wasn’t even remotely competitive. But the Cardinals will be favored again to be the one taking their shot at the Region 4 winner in the semifinals, and are considered possibly the only serious thread to a repeat by Johnson Central.

The 2017 edition will be a veteran-heavy team that carries experience in two straight state semis in addition to state success in middle school. Only 11 seniors depart from the Cardinals, with leading rusher Dalton Garner the most significant offensive loss. Garner produced 1,059 yards and 20 touchdowns a season ago, leaving SR RB German Ruiz (68/416/8) as the leading returning rusher. QB Lorenzo Linsey is a significant returnee, chipping in 408 yards and 10 touchdowns to go with his 115/214/1,787 and 21 TD passing line. The receiving corps is almost entirely intact with the return of Grant Shoemaker (33/520/5), Aubrey Weaver (22/479/6), and Stetson Simpson (30/394/6). Experienced quarterback, experienced receivers, experienced line, solid experience in the running corps…. the offense is loaded for bear and will look to improve on an already impressive 38.9 PPG a season ago. The defense doesn’t return quite as much, but should see strong contributions in the secondary from Aubrey Weaver and Lane Turner, and return defensive stars in SR Clay Shelton (113 solo tackles) and Chris Dunagan (71 solo tackles), anchoring the linebacking corps.

Wayne County will face some challenges early as they have in the past, with their schedule highlighted by a home game against Pulaski County – which has appeared in four straight 5A title games – and a trip to traditional powerhouse Boyle County. Their district appears to have taken a step back, which should make the Cards a solid favorite in their district contests, but with cross bracketing, District 3 power John Hardin and sleeper Western loom in the regional rounds.

3. Collins (2015: 7-5; Second Round)
Head Coach: Jerry T. Lucas

The Titans have found it difficult to return to the glory of their program’s early years, failing to advance past the second round in any season since their 13-2 4A title campaign in 2013. In each of their past two year’s they found their way blocked by rival Shelby County, bowing out in second round losses. But the Titans proved their mettle in a narrow 24-18 loss last season, and with a host of returnees, look poised to establish as the favorite in District 4 and Region 2.

No returning player is as crucial as Coach Lucas’s son, senior quarterback JR Lucas. Lucas is entering his fourth season under center, with a career total of 5,525 yards and 75 touchdowns, including 3,130 yards and 41 TDs a season ago. Collins leans heavily upon their aerial attack offensively, and a player who has seen starting action in four straight years is a luxury most teams never have. While they will have to contend with the loss of their top two receivers from last season, the Titans return virtually everyone else on the offensive side, including running back Nasean Roseberry, a dual threat who posted a combined 1,351 yards between carries and receptions. Roseberry actually did more damage catching out of the backfield, but still averaged a healthy 6.65 YPC on the ground. Four veteran linemen will open lanes for Roseberry and Lucas, while keeping Lucas upright on his dropbacks. Collins had the 7th best offense in per game scoring for 4A a year ago, and will likely challenge for the top spot in this go-round. Defensively Collins was not nearly as stout, allowing over 30 points per game, but like the offense they benefit from the return of most starters. None are more important than linebacker Nick Eades, fresh off of 71 solo tackles a season ago, ready to anchor the defense again. Senior safety Jacob Phillips (52 solo tackles) and senior LB Zach Stucker (33 solo tackles) also return to significant roles. In all, 7 of the top 9 in tackles from a season ago return for Collins, and standout junior corner Cameron Harris (8 interceptions) will provide a boost in coverage.

Even without the departure of John Hardin’s District 3 via cross bracketing, Collins would have been the favorite for the region crown coming into the year. Thanks to the changes, in 2017 District 4 will square off against District 5, where Mercer County is expected to be the primary challenger. Collins is currently positioned as the favorite on this side of the bracket to advance to the state finals, and appear almost certain to make a better showing than they have since 2013. Collins opens with Madison Southern, but their schedule is highlighted by a September 1st trip to Ballard, home dates against Boyle County and Pulaski County, and their always difficult district schedule. The Titans will be tested.

4. Franklin-Simpson (2016: 14-1; State Runners-Up)
Head Coach: Doug Preston

Set aside how it ended for a moment – 2016 was a tremendous success for the Wildcats no matter how you slice it. Franklin-Simpson ran out to a 14-0 record, completing their first unbeaten regular season since 1975. Along the way Franklin avenged 2015 losses to South Warren (twice), Allen County-Scottsville, and Greenwood, posting stellar numbers with the #6 scoring offense and #3 scoring defense in 4A. Their 14 game winning streak is the longest in the history of the program, and it all culminated in their eighth state title appearance in program history. The rest of the story of course is that they fell for the fifth straight time in a state title game, as Johnson Central unleashed a program-lifetime of frustration on the Wildcats and pounded them 48-0.

Plenty returns from that strong team, but let’s start with what they’ve lost. Only three starters return on offense, including only one lineman, Jack Randolph. Gone are longtime stalwarts like LT Cole Kirby (Middle Tennessee), RB Josiah Robey (Cinncinnati – 86 rushes for 1,119 yards and 14 TDs), and QB Jackson Caudill (71/130, 1,468 yards, 12 TDs). The receiving corps, line, and half of the backfield are gone. Defensively, the Wildcats will be missing three of their front four from last year, and lose their biggest playmakers in the secondary in Tay Jones and Josiah Robey. Now the good news – RB/LB Saul Brady returns for what feels like his eighth year at Franklin-Simpson. Brady has been an offensive and defensive fixture for the Wildcats, and enters his senior year with 2,788 yards on 299 career rushes for a strong 9.3 YPC. Last season he led the Wildcat rushing attack with 1,389 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding an interception and 36 solo tackles. Brady is the most complete player on the team, and will be counted on even more this year. Carlos McKinney also returns at fullback. A bruising runner, he posted 783 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2015. Five backup linemen return from the title game two-deep, and Franklin will be counting on that group to step up and continue the tradition of strong line play. Senior Rylan Thomas does not have much experience, with only nine career passing attempts. The second dimension is a key need for state success, and Thomas will need to be able to throw enough to open the running lanes. One the defensive side, Dion Pearson returns to anchor the line, posting 51 solo tackles a year ago. The news is considerably brighter in the linebacking corps where everyone returns, including standout Cade Harvey (all-state honorable mention, 84 solo tackles) and James Baker (63 solo tackles). They’ll be counted on to step up while the line figures things out.

Franklin-Simpson’s schedule looks much the same from a year ago. One notable change is the addition of Elizabethtown in their opening game, which will be a challenging start for the reloading Wildcats against last year’s 3A state semifinalist. South Warren is added as a now out of district opponent while traditional games against Greenwood and Russellville are retained.

5. Ashland (2016: 9-4; Region Runner-Up)
Head Coach: Tony Love

Ashland took a step back but yet a step forward last year. The 2015 edition was no-doubt a more highly regarded squad, and Ashland’s ranking entering the year reflected that. An 0-2 start with losses to 1A Raceland and a blowout at the hands of George Washington (WV) did little to dissuade that notion, but the Tomcats closed strong, winning nine of their last 11 games. The two losses were both at the hands of Johnson Central, which was to be expected. The step forward was that they reached the region final for the first time in the six class system, winning two postseason games for the first time since 2004. Reaching at least that level is considered the benchmark for success this season.

Junior QB Braxton Ratliff is the most important returnee for the Tomcats. In his sophomore campaign he helped engineer a massive shift in offensive mindset for Ashland, which went from a nearly 90/10 split between rushing and passing production in 2015 to a 50/50 dead heat with a slight lean to aerial attack in 2016. That balance should continue to serve them well, and it is represented in Ratliff, who let the team in rushing in addition to his 2,000+ yards passing. Ashland will likely go as far as Ratliff takes them, and he’ll be the best player on the field most nights. His primary returning receiving threat will be Aroq Colburn, who may also serve as the backup quarterback this season. Colburn had 28 receptions for 377 yards and 3 touchdowns a season ago, alongside 74 carries for 369 yards and 4 TDs on the ground. Ashland is expected to be fast, but there are concerns on the line, which was not a strength a season ago, and lost their expected starting center to a broken hand early in full pad practice. Their upside will rest upon the ability of the line to keep Ratliff from having to scramble. Defensively, Colburn and Marcus Daniels appear to be the standouts, anchoring the linebacking corps, and Gillum and Caines return in the secondary. As on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive line play will be key, as Ashland looks to improve upon their 2016 campaign that saw an average of over 17 PPG allowed.

Ashland’s schedule remains difficult as ever, with the usual matchups against Raceland, George Washington, Russell, and Ironton. This year they add their first meeting against Harlan County to the slate, and will take a bye week after their matchup against Johnson Central to regroup right before the playoffs, eschewing their recent trend of taking their bye during Week 0.

6. John Hardin (2016: 9-5; State Semifinalist)
Head Coach: Chris Engstrand

Each year when we see the mass departures from John Hardin we wonder if this is the year they will drop off. For the past few, they’ve stubbed their toe early (starting 1-3 in 2016), but they continued to perform, reaching the state semifinals yet again – the 8th time in the last 10 years. The Bulldogs are very much a team that gets the benefit of the doubt due to their success, but this offseason they also replaced their coach in addition to the loss of 25 seniors. Chad Lewis stepped down after four years, and Chris Engstrand moves over from Ballard, bringing some offensive intrigue with him. The Wing-T has reigned supreme at John Hardin, and should continue to do so, but may feature some additional wrinkles this time around.

On both sides of the ball, the Bulldogs return very little, especially outside the skill positions. Of note, leading rusher Steven Livers (93 rushes, 724 yards, 6 touchdowns) and #3 rusher Lorenzo Reinheimer (71 rushes, 558 yards, 8 touchdowns) both return, as well as dynamic two-way player Anthony Witherspoon, who saw time at receiver a year ago. There has often been chatter of Witherspoon seeing time at QB, this may be when we finally see it. The defensive side is a definite concern with only three returning starters from a unit that allowed 21 points per game a season ago. The schedule has softened slightly, but still features strong programs like Boyle County, Central Hardin, and Meade County. The Bulldogs never really take it easy, and they’ll need to prep work before stepping into the ring with a team like Wayne County in the playoffs. There are a lot of question marks, but a lot of faith in the pedigree of the Bulldog program to figure it out.

7. Hopkinsville (2016: 10-2; Second Round)
Head Coach: Craig Clayton

The slow climb for the Tigers continues, as they continue to push their way back to the state power that they once were. A big part of that success returned with Craig Clayton coming in to take over for departing Marc Clark. Clayton’s previous tenure of nearly 20 years resulted in the longest tenure and most wins of any Tiger coach in the program’s illustrious history. Since his departure, the Tigers are yet to advance past the region finals, and they haven’t even gone that far since 2006. He inherits a squad that has a sparkling record the last two years, and appeared on the cusp of a title prior to falling to South Warren in a nailbiter last season.

One key piece of that success the last few years was Jalen Johnson. With 4,843 yards and 67 passing touchdowns in the last three years, the quarterback position seemed secure heading into his senior year. But just before the start of the season Johnson transferred to Aspire Academy and reclassified to 2019, leaving the Tigers without a huge piece. Enter Javier Bland, a talented, albeit untested sophomore signal caller, who will be expected to shoulder the load. If he can live up to Johnson’s standards, then Hoptown’s ranking is going to jump way up from here. He will have to try without the services of Shorty Cager, who would have been the leading returning receiver with 57 receptions for 953 yards in 2016. He will be foregoing his football season to focus on basketball. Gavin Marschand and Andrew King have been impressive thus far, stepping up to fill Cager's absence. Leading rusher JaTorian Dillard also returns for his junior campaign, looking to build off his 827 yards on the ground in 2016. The offensive and defensive line had significant overlap, and only LT Connor Bohannon returns on the interior of either line. The Tigers had one of the top rated defenses in 4A a season ago, but faced significant departures. Senior JaKevis Bryant (44 solo tackles) will be expected to anchor the linebackers. We will get significant answers right away to questions about Hopkinsville, as their long bemoaned schedule jumps up by a huge factor. South Warren, Mayfield, Caldwell County, and Christian County comprise the first four games and then emerging Greenwood visits the Stadium of Champions in the last tune-up before the playoffs. If Hopkinsville enters the playoffs 5-5 or 6-4, it will not necessarily be an indictment of the very real danger they pose to the teams they face. There is a lot of talent and skill on this Tiger squad, especially in the lower classes -they’re just unproven at this point.

8. Mercer County (2016: 8-5; Region Runner-Up)
Head Coach: David Buchanan

Mercer County played the role of spoilers last year, rebounding from a tough 3-4 start that saw them lose control of the district by winning five games in a row, including a surprise upset in overtime of Rockcastle County in the second round of the playoffs. That pushed Mercer County into a region final for the first time in three years, but they remained unable to solve Wayne County – who had lost to Rockcastle County - falling 30-14 in the finals. 18 seniors depart from that team, but there are great reasons to be optimistic for the Titans.

QB Gunnar Gillis returns for his senior season at Mercer County, fresh off a campaign that saw him throw for 1,881 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding a respectable 239 yards and 4 scores on the ground. His receiving corps is depleted somewhat, but Aaron Johnson (23 receptions, 294 yards, 1 TD) and all-around stud Trevon Faulkner (14 receptions, 173 yards, 5 TDs) will be players he can lean on for production. Both players are two-way players and may be called on to do even more. Providing a strong secondary, Faulkner notched 7 interceptions a season ago, in addition to 46 tackles while Johnson added five interceptions. A lot of question marks dot the positions around these players, particularly at the running back position, with Gillis actually serving as the leading returning rusher. Blake Russell and Noah Sheperson return on the offensive line, and Zach and Josh Belding return with experience in the defensive trenches.

9. Rockcastle County (2016: 10-2; Second Round)
Head Coach: Scott Parkey

2016 saw Rockcastle County post their most wins in a decade and their first district title in five years. A strong, veteran team enjoyed its greatest achievement with a 41-34 OT win over Wayne County in late September that ultimately clinched the district title for them. But it unraveled with a failed two point conversion in overtime against Mercer County, as the Rockets fell 31-30 and missed out on what would have been their first trip to a region final since 2006.

14 seniors depart from that team, including 11 starters. Both Dakota Bishop and Chayse McClure had seen significant time at QB and were lost to graduation. Brent Lovell is expected to move under center from the RB position, but only threw a single attempt in 2016. Holdan Barnett (126/736/11) and Devon Robinson (107/524/10) return to lead the ground attack. Junior tailback Jaden Payne (49/335/4) should emerge with more touches as well. Rockcastle heavily leans on their running game, and this year will be no exception. The OL will be decently experienced with good size, with returnees including Isaiah Amyx, Peyton Saylor, and Kenyan Stewart. The situation is a bit direr on the defensive side, as the top nine in tackles depart from a season ago. Brent Lovell is a bright spot returning in the secondary, with 4 INTs – including one return for a touchdown – 1 fumble recovery, and 20 solo tackles. Rockcastle County opens with Lincoln County, who they defeated 55-8 in the regular season closer a season ago. The games to circle are their September 29th trip to Wayne County, and the October 20th trip to Knox Central. The former will show what sort of gap there is between the Rockets and contending for the district and region. The latter may be the difference between home and road in the playoffs.

10. Shelby County (2016: 11-2; Region Runner-Up)
Head Coach: Todd Shipley

4A life has been pretty good to Shelby County. After going 8 years in between trips to the region finals (or beyond), Shelby County has been back to back years thanks to a pair of double digit win campaigns. After opening with a loss to Garrard County, Shelby County (officially) reeled off 11 in a row, including two wins over primary rival Collins, before bowing out to John Hardin. Offensively, the Rockets were juggernauts, scoring 31 or more in every game except one, and averaging over 42 PPG.

The best news for Rockets fans heading into this season is that they return Caleb Morehead, fresh off of a nearly 1500 yard season with 18 touchdowns. Fellow backfield mate Kyion Stone (52/341/3) will likely take on a larger role with the departure of Brandon Davis, the second major ball carrier from a year ago. The Rockets will be missing Tyler Drane, who combined for just over 1700 yards at the quarterback position. Shelby County employs about an 80/20 split in terms of the running/passing game, but did see a bit more of a pass last year to keep teams honest. Stepping into that role this year will be Collin OHare, who carries a perfect 3/3 passing record into the year from 2016. The line will be retooled, but Daniel Glass and Colten Aldridge return up front. The defensive side was hit harder by graduation, but returns LB Jose Carias (14 solo tackles), ILB Devonte Chandler (12 solo tackles), LB Cameron Armstrong (10 solo tackles) and DE Jordan Nava, all who saw significant time. The defense will have a new coordinator as well in Alex Mathews, which will mix things up even further.

Just Outside

11. Greenup County (2016: 7-5; Second Round)
Head Coach: Scott Grizzle

11 starters return to a Musketeer squad that has gone on the road and won a playoff game in each of the last two seasons. QB Eli Sammons returns to build on a 1,134 yard freshman campaign, as does fellow QB Chase Hunt. Greenup will have plenty of passing options behind a veteran line, but will face an uphill battle in their chase of district mates Johnson Central and Ashland.

12. Knox Central (2016: 4-6-1; First Round)
Head Coach: Fred Hoskins

The Panthers fell in their final four contests a year ago, but it wasn’t a lack of competitive drive, as they put scares into both Wayne County and Rockcastle County before bowing out to Mercer County in the first round. Donavan Arthur returns to build on a strong 1,000 yard rushing campaign, but the key to 2017 is Jermel Carton, who is returning from an ACL injury after the third game last season. Carton had rushed for 261 yards on just 34 carries to that point, and could be the boost Knox needs to push for a home playoff game.

13. Bourbon County (2016: 6-6; Second Round)
Head Coach: John Hodge

The Colonels closed 2016 strong with wins in five of their last six games before falling to Ashland in the playoffs. Their lone loss came to 5A finalist Pulaski County. Bourbon County hopes to ride the passing game to another district title. While they replace 2,000 yard passer Trevor Lucky with senior Kenton Edwards (246 yards on 30/63 passing in spot duty), they do return Titus Ransom, who posted 1,002 yards on 70 receptions – 8 for touchdowns.

14. Franklin County (2016: 4-7; First Round)
Head Coach: Eddie James

Eddie James inherits a Franklin County program that is still struggling to find its footing since their region final runs in 2012 & 2013. On the positive side, they won’t have to contend with John Hardin, who has put them out of the playoffs in the last two years. As for the team, Franklin County returns more than half of their starters, including most of their linemen and one of their two 2016 quarterbacks, Jerimiah Green.

15. Western (2016: 4-7; First Round)
Head Coach: Preston King

The Warriors have a treat for new head coach Preston King – almost every starter returns on both sides of the ball. That can only mean growth for a team that still managed a home playoff contest in 2016. They’ll look for big things from back Kenneth Thompson and returning quarterback Tyon Pearson to boost an offense that failed to score over 8 points in six of their 11 contests last season.