Despite losing eight starters from his defense, Chestatee coach Stan Luttrell is optimistic about his team's chance for improvement in 2011.
Last season the War Eagles were plagued by inexperience and stung by a six-game losing streak, finishing 3-7, the worst mark in Luttrell's five-year tenure. At one point, the team started four freshmen and had sophomores at numerous key positions.
After that trial by fire, the War Eagles could field a more experienced team this season, even though they'll have to replace some of last year's team leaders.
"We've had a great offseason," Luttrell said. "The commitment to the program is higher than ever. We're big, we're fast, but we've got to continually get better every day."
The War Eagles have some depth at running back, starting with Quan Clark, last year's leading rusher with 731 yards, and Montrai Tate, who rushed for 267 yards but battled a high ankle sprain for much of 2010.
They also got an influx of speed this summer. Brandon Thompson, who played last season at Milton, transferred in and will get his share of touches. The junior placed third in the Class AAAAA 200-meter dash at last spring's Georgia Olympics and reports a personal best in the 100 of 10.73 seconds.
"With those three, we feel real good about our backfield," Luttrell said.
At quarterback, Chestatee must replace Scott Chewning, who passed for 1,059 yards last season and rushed for 351. Junior Jordan Degraff is set to take over the position after seeing snaps as the backup last year and starting at cornerback, where he tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
"He's a good decision-maker and very athletic," Luttrell said. "He's been in our system for years and does a great job of running the offense."
Juniors Kelly Arthur and Tony Fayson are the top candidates to take over for last year's leader at wide receiver, Alex Moore (625 yards, 8 TDs). Baker McCormack and Nathanael Peck are competing for time at tight end.
Center Johnathan West and left tackle Matt Hammond are back after starting every game last season. They'll be joined on the offensive line by fellow juniors Johious Cantrell, Danny Mejia and senior Austin Edmonds.
Led by senior end Garrett Bennett, Luttrell said the line may be the strongest part of the War Eagle defense.
They may need to be if Chestatee is to improve on one of
last year's biggest weaknesses: stopping opposing run games. The War Eagles gave up 261 rushing yards per game last year and 6.7 yards per carry, leading to 32 points allowed per game.
Luttrell touts Bennett's strength and quickness. Last year, he tallied 54 tackles and tied for the team high with four sacks. He'll be joined this year by senior Austin Kinsey at end. At tackle, sophomore Jordan Browning and junior Spencer Stover could split time.
Kyle Perry is back to lead the linebacker corps after registering 82 stops as a sophomore, and Luttrell is looking for a solid sophomore season from "big, physical"
Kalil Cantrell, who started every game last year.
Senior Cody Etris and junior Austin Holcombe could also see time at linebacker.
Jay Lyle, who logged time at running back last season, is manning the War Eagles' strong safety/outside linebacker hybrid position.
"He's a disrupter," Luttrell said. "He's a playmaker, and he plays with a big motor."
Senior P.J. White is holding down one cornerback spot and junior Tommy McCormack is back at free safety. Both saw extensive playing time last year.
The War Eagles are looking for a new punter, but have junior Leo Molina back to handle the place-kicking duties.
Molina converted 26 PATs last season and put 17 of his 38 kickoffs into the end zone.
Clark, Arthur and Tate have experience in the return game, and Thompson's speed makes him a candidate.
It's been four years now since Chestatee posted a winning record. Their last playoff appearance was in 2006, Luttrell's first year at the school.
But with a talented, and now experienced junior class leading the way, and a variety of threats in the backfield, the War Eagles may have what it takes to push for a playoff spot in what is expected to be a very balanced Region 8-AAA North.