Johnson coach Paul Friel is trying to make good on a promise he made the school's administration when they hired him in 2006: Stay with the program until he has at least one winning season. And while times have been rocky over the past five seasons, averaging three wins a year, Friel is starting to believe that years of hard work are starting to pay off with stability in the program.
Not only have the numbers in the program from varsity to junior high spiked, they also have a solid nucleus of starters returning from last year's team that competed for a playoff spot in the final week of the season against Stephens County in Toccoa.
While Friel doesn't want anyone to think he expects this year's Knights to challenge for a region title, he does believe if they can avoid injury, they'll be able to surprise some folks. The Knights coach fully expects his team to surpass 2010's two victories.
"We're really building the numbers in our program, which is a good sign," Friel said. "But we still can't afford to have any injuries.
"We only have seven seniors, but we have 18 juniors and 20 sophomores."
Friel also likes the blue-collar approach that his team brings to the field. He doesn't care if they don't have any superstars.
"We have a bunch of Joe-Average football players that play hard," Friel added.
The Knights' running game is in good hands with the return of junior back Cedric Harris, who rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last season. He stepped into the starting lineup in Week 3 last season and has been a fixture in the backfield since.
Even though Harris will get the bulk of the carries, Johnson also has A.J. Millwood in a running back/slot receiver position.
The Knights have a turnover at quarterback with sophomore Justin Thomson taking over the starting job after starting at wide receiver and free safety last season.
Friel got a taste for Thomson's competitiveness with a solid showing in summer camps.
"Justin is fearless and loves to compete," Friel said.
On the offensive line, Friel feels like his team has the luxury, for once, of having a two-deep rotation. At tackle, Kyle Stacey and Mason Borders are penciled in as the starters, and Kevin Avila and Blake Forrester are the guards. Adrian Madera is the starting center. Daniel Hosch and John Averils will also get playing time on the line.
Known for having good linebackers in the past few seasons, the Knights will have some rebuilding to do this year. Joey Brooks was an expected returning starter at linebacker, but has since moved to West Forsyth. That leaves Jose Martinez, Avila and Caleb Herrin as the Knights' starters in their adjusted 3-4 scheme.
On the defensive line, Johnson has some returning players with Stacey, Madera and Borders all back up front. Steve Rodriguez is back and healthy on the defensive line after missing 2010 with a burst appendix.
The defensive secondary for Johnson features Harris and Thomson at safety. Millwood and Chance Scoggins are the starting cornerbacks.
Harris, Paul Barker and Seth Rebollar will all share in the kick return and punt return duties. Rodriguez will kick, while Harris and Martinez will split punting duties.
Johnson's downfall over the past few seasons has been pretty easy to pinpoint. The Knights start out each season with talented players on both sides of the ball, but suffer too many critical injuries for a program lacking proper depth. While depth is still a concern, Friel believes he's got the right players on the field to weather any storms that may come their way. Also, Johnson has a favorable early schedule, which could translate into some confidence heading into subregion play.