McMICHAEL: With Daniel Bradford back for his second season as coach, the Phoenix finally has some stability. The next step is improvement after a 1-10 season. Sophomore QB Matthew Wright had to step in last year because of injuries and should be much more comfortable with experience. Logan Disque anchors both lines and provides leadership. Key to the season: Starting strong at Andrews on Thursday night could set a positive tone for the season.
MOREHEAD: The Panthers have a solid senior class that helped them go 6-6 and reach the NCHSAA Class 3-A playoffs in 2018. That experience goes a long way in the tough Mid-State 3-A Conference. Look for Morehead to be 4-1 heading into its first conference test Oct. 4 against Western Alamance, with the only loss coming to defending Class 2-A champion Reidsville — unless the Panthers can complete the upset they nearly pulled off last year against the Rams. Key to the season: The Panthers must find a successor to workhorse RB Duron King if they want to play the physical, ground-oriented style of football coach Lin Stadler favors.
NORTHEAST GUILFORD: Coach Earl Bates doesn't have a lot of size or depth this year, but he does have some players with speed and experience. QB Justin Wilson, RB Kobie Perez and WRs Zeke Nicholson and Jaydon Hall are playmakers for the Rams. On the defensive side of the ball, LB Joseph Waters and DL Anthony Hairston are the leaders, and Page transfer Joshua Butler-Garner should help solidify the secondary. LBs Ja'quan Cannon and Kelton Williamson are rising juniors who have a lot of potential. Key to the season: Northeast can't afford the type of injuries to key players that have plagued them the last two seasons.
NORTHERN GUILFORD: The Nighthawks have a deep, talented senior class for the first time since the Johnny Roscoe era and that's reason for considerable optimism — especially after they went 8-4 in 2018. Northern must establish the running game early with Rakeem Murchison and Nyles Mosley, among others to keep the heat off first-year starter Will Lenard at quarterback until he gets comfortable. Defensively, the Nighthawks' undersized but athletic front needs to a linebacking corps led by Tyler Anderson free to make plays. Key to the season: The Nighthawks need to keep Lenard healthy, because there is no one with any experience behind him.
ROCKINGHAM COUNTY: QB Mason Denny should be better in his second year as a starter for the Cougars and TE Stephen Shoemaker is a reliable receiver and blocker, but replacing RB Anthony Sedeno (2,614 yards rushing the last two years) will be difficult. Defensively, LB Austin Lynch should hold things together. After going 9-4 with a senior-dominated team in Brad Baker's first season as coach, the Cougars fell back to earth with a 3-8 finish in 2018. This year's team much more closely resembles the 2017 squad in terms of experience. Key to the season: Rockingham averaged 18.2 points per game last season with Sedeno. Without him, they're going to have to play great defense to stay in most games.
AREA PLAYERS TO WATCH
JAMAL DALTON, senior, QB, Morehead: A four-year starter, Dalton is the player who makes the Panthers' offense go. If he can take better care of the football (14 INTs and 6 lost fumbles in 2018), Dalton could take a big step forward in his final season.
MICHAEL FROGGE, senior, TE, Northern Guilford: Frogge is a big (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) target who can get yards after the catch and also use his size to great advantage when he is attached as a blocker. He's already first-year starter Will Lenard's favorite receiver.
WILL LENARD, junior, QB, Northern Guilford: The latest Lenard to play QB for the Nighthawks takes over after older brother Jakob and Tyler Flippen split the job in 2018. How Will Lenard settles into the job against a brutal early-season schedule (at Grimsley, at Page and vs. Ragsdale to start) will go a long way toward determining if the Nighthawks can improve on last year's 8-4 record.
RAKEEM MURCHISON, junior, RB, Northern Guilford: Murchison rushed for 446 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 17 passes for 170 yards and three more scores and added 289 yards and a TD on kick returns as a sophomore. Whether he's in the backfield or the slot, Murchison is a playmaker.
JUSTIN WILSON, senior, QB, Northeast Guilford: Wilson is the No. 2 returning rusher for the Rams, but he needs to take a step forward as a passer after completing 63 of 147 attempts for 929 yards with seven TDs and five interceptions last season.
TYLER ANDERSON, senior, LB, Northern Guilford: If a thigh bruise that kept Anderson out of some preseason scrimmages doesn't slow him too much he should be good for 100-plus tackles for the Nighthawks. His leadership also will be important.
JACOB BARLOW, senior, DL, Northern Guilford: Barlow, who also plays on the offensive line, anchors the defensive front for the Nighthawks along with fellow senior Trey Ruff. As a junior, Barlow had 66 tackles — including 23 for losses — and six sacks.
LOGAN DODSON, senior, S, Morehead: Dodson had 59 tackles and three interceptions as a junior for the Panthers. He also figures to contribute as a receiver this season.
AUSTIN LYNCH, senior, LB, Rockingham County: Lynch led the Cougars in tackles last season, with 108, including five for losses and also picked off a pass. He's a leader on and off the field.
JOSEPH WATERS, senior, LB, Northeast Guilford: Waters may be undersized for a middle linebacker, at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, but he plays much bigger for the Rams. Waters and DL Anthony Hairston will set the tone for a unit that features a lot of juniors.
CONFERENCE GAMES TO WATCH
Northeast Guilford at Eastern Alamance, Sept. 27: The Rams upset Eastern Alamance 29-15 last year, then turned around and were blown out the next week at Northern Guilford. If Northeast can win in Mebane this year, it should be better prepared to avoid that kind of hangover again.
Northern Guilford at Northeast Guilford, Oct. 4: This matchup has been a good one in recent years and this year should be no exception. If either team is going to make a run at perennial conference powers Eastern Alamance and Western Alamance, it must win this game.
Eastern Alamance at Northern Guilford, Oct. 11: If Northern beats Northeast, this game will determine how meaningful the Nighthawks' trip to Elon to close the regular season Nov. 8 at Western Alamance will be.
Morehead at McMichael, Oct. 11: With both schools dropping down to Class 2-AA in football for 2019 and 2020, this matchup likely will determine which team makes the NCHSAA playoffs from what is now a split conference.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Eastern Alamance
2. Western Alamance
3. Northern Guilford
4. Northeast Guilford
6. Rockingham County