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File / The Herald Joseph Benton (54) is expected to start on both sides of the ball for Edgewood.

After two consecutive seasons without an AISA victory, Edgewood fought through a difficult schedule and played its way into the state semifinals last year, falling a touchdown short of an appearance in the title game. Now, despite some key losses on both sides of the ball, the Wildcats are ready to get back on the field with the state championship game as the goal.

“We’ve all been anticipating the start so it’s very exciting,” Edgewood lineman Cade Bazzell said. “We all want to get out there and show everyone that last year wasn’t a fluke. We’ve been preparing and want to go farther this year than we did last year.”

The Wildcats have plenty of starters returning on both sides but there still seems to be outside doubt about how the team will handle the higher expectations this season. Edgewood was not ranked in the preseason top 10 by the Alabama Sports Writers Association, sitting just behind a Lee-Scott team that went 0-11 last season including a 34-3 loss to the Wildcats.

Edgewood coach Darryl Free is entering his second season and he said there is no extra pressure because of last season’s success. Quarterback Alex Johnson said he knows the Wildcats will get their opponents’ best efforts but he is still focused on the disappointing end to last season. 

“It’s more pressure because we have a bigger target on our back this year,” Johnson said. “We won’t sneak up on anyone. But last year really doesn’t mean a thing now and really, our goal was to make it to state so hopefully this year we can get that done.”

Johnson is entering his second season as the starting quarterback and he is expected to take on a bigger role this year. The Wildcats leaned heavily on the rushing attack last season but with leading rushers Kolby Potts and Tyler Abernathy now gone, they may be forced to make changes to the game plan.

“We’re built a little different this year,” Free said. “We have evolved the offense a little bit but we’re still staying true to our identity. Now, we just have the capability to venture from that a little more so we’re more versatile on offense this year than we were at this point last year.”

Johnson will get the help of four returning starters on the offensive line. Bazzell will stay at left tackle with Clay Williams joining him as the left guard. Colton Jones moves into the starting center position with Joseph Benton at right guard and Caleb Justiss at right tackle.

The Wildcats are still figuring out who will be joining Johnson in the backfield as starters but Free said there is a good chance for multiple backs to get carries. Stanhope Elmore transfer Trey Killingsworth is battling with Mitchell Boyd and Blaine Guthrie for the starting running back job while Boyd is also in competition with Robert Stewart and Isaac Gordy at H-back.

“We’re still really confident,” Bazzell said. “We’ve had kids step up in those roles and they’ve worked really hard. So, we know we can fill those and still be strong as a team.”

The passing attack may be Edgewood’s biggest weapon with top receivers Kaleb Varner and Kam Burleson returning along with tight end Carson Peevy. Varner said he has gotten extra work in with Johnson during the offseason and he believes they’ll see that pay off on the field.

“This is my final go around so I’m excited to get out there,” Varner said. “I feel like we’re going to do something good. We have put in even more work this year so we are ready to go even further this year.”

While the offense is loaded with confidence, the defense will have to deal with losing its top two linebackers. Bazzell and Williams will lead the way on the defensive line but Free said there are still several players attempting to win a starting job at linebacker.

Drez Crawford returns to the field and will battle for one of the three starting jobs in the middle along with Boyd, Killingsworth, Gordy and Peevy. Free said having a rotation of players on defense is a good problem to have and he expects the position battle to continue well into the season.

“We’ll push it as long as we can,” Free said. “As a coaching staff, we’ll make a decision but we want that com-petition to go on as long as possible. We may adjust reps accordingly but truly, we don’t have a stud that’s shining above anyone else in any of those competitions so it’s going to be about who can do those small intangibles and who fits into the game plan.”

The Wildcats start their season with back-to-back road games and they have just two home games in the first seven weeks. Last season, Free said he thought the team’s strength of schedule helped prepare the Wildcats for region play and the postseason so he hopes this year’s schedule has a similar effect.

“Starting on the road is going to be a great challenge for us,” Free said. “We’re coming out of the gate with three AAA schools. Our schedule has really gotten tougher but I think our kids are ready to step up to the challenge. I actually look forward to going on the road the first two weeks because it makes them get focused on the game.”

Two changes were made to Edgewood’s schedule late in the offseason after Coosa Valley and Evangel Christian dropped out of the region. The Wildcats replaced those games with non-region matchups against Evangel (Alabaster) and Wilcox plus they have already clinched a playoff spot with just four teams remaining in the region. 

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.