Will Beechwood repeat as state champs this season? And can Highlands bounce back from 3-8?
Here are 9 KY storylines to follow this fall
Tom Ramstetter | WCPO contributor
7:00 AM, Aug 18, 2017
CINCINNATI -- High school football begins in Kentucky with a full slate of games Friday and Saturday, and with a new season comes a host of questions, storylines and things to watch.
Here are nine things to keep an eye on this season, from nine different teams, starting with the defending Class A state champions:
Will Beechwood repeat as state champions in Class A?
The Tigers finally ended Beechwood's state-title drought with a 21-14 win over Hazard last Dec. 2 in the Class A state final at Houchens Industries–L.T. Smith Stadium on the campus of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. The win clinched the program's 12th state title and its first since 2008.
But can the Tigers do it again?
To do so, they'll have to battle through a long regular season and be in top form by the time the playoffs roll around in November, but the Tigers have plenty of starters back from last season's team that went 14-1. Seven of those starters are on offense, including senior quarterback Brayden Burch, who completed 151 of 236 passes for 2,407 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2016. He threw only six interceptions.
Eight Tigers starters return on defense.
An experienced roster looks good on paper, but they'll still have to win games, and now they'll have the defending state champ target on their backs.
"These young men are talented, but none of that will matter if we don't have the mental toughness needed to carry us through the off-season and each week of the season," Beechwood coach Noel Rash said. "We must continue to develop the team attitude and selflessness so vital to championship teams."
Covington Catholic's Miami U.-bound duo
The top two returning Colonels from last season's 9-4 team that reached the Class 5A state quarterfinals are senior quarterback AJ Mayer and senior linebacker/tight end Kam Butler.
Both earned multiple Division I college offers, according to CovCath coach Eddie Eviston, and both signed with the RedHawks. Each will be a three-year starter.
Mayer completed 163 of 296 passes for 2,480 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2016 against only seven interceptions. He also carried 122 times for 513 yards and 11 more touchdowns. Butler caught seven passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns while adding five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Butler also made 61 tackles, including 45 solo stops.
Mayer and Butler lead a pack of experienced Colonels at the skill positions on both sides of the ball, filling out a roster Eviston thinks can make a run in 2017.
"Obviously, we will need to improve each day and have some good luck in order to have a chance to reach our ultimate goals," Eviston said. "The history and nature of our program allows us the opportunity to play great competition, which can help us develop into a team to compete for a run in the state playoffs, so we have those high expectations to be able to compete at a high level at the end of the year."
Jacob Chisholm is back in the Ryle backfield
Standout quarterback Tanner Morgan has moved on to Western Michigan, but the Raiders have leading rusher Jacob Chisholm back to carry the load out of the backfield and to perhaps take some pressure off a new quarterback in Union.
"The return of Jacob Chisholm and four offensive linemen is a big key," Ryle coach Mike Engler said. "It should take the pressure off of a new starting QB."
Chisholm carried 188 times for 1,681 yards in 2016 with 22 touchdowns. He'll run behind senior Parker Bisek, who Engler said has many Division I offers, senior three-year starter Ryan Principata, senior Kevin Weber and junior Many Jacob Gideon.
Still, the Raiders have a lot to replace from last season's team that went 12-1 and reached the Class 6A state quarterfinals.
"I really like what we have going into the 2017 season," Engler said. "It should make for an exciting year of Ryle football."
Matt Shearer takes over at QB for experienced Simon Kenton offense
Former three-year starting quarterback Cam Racke has graduated, but Simon Kenton coach Jeff Marksberry is happy to have senior Matt Shearer under center in 2017.
"Even though we lost a three-year starter in Cam Racke at QB, we feel really good about new starter Matt Shearer and what he produced as a junior," Marksberry said. "Matt has two quality proven wide receivers to get the ball to and two solid running backs, so that will make his job as a first-year starter somewhat easier."
Shearer completed 52 of 110 passes in 2016 with 13 touchdowns. Senior receivers Sam Murray and Fisher Hayden should be Shearer's top targets. Murray made 37 catches for 531 yards and five touchdowns in 2016 while Hayden added 28 catches for 745 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Junior running back Jon Sergent carried 69 times for 741 yards and nine touchdowns last season and senior running back Will Parks will return after missing the 2016 season with an injury. The Pioneers also return three-year starters and seniors Noah Turner and Sam Holon to the offensive line.
Cooper enters its 10th season of football with a young roster
The Jaguars will field one of the youngest teams in the program's now 10-year history, according to coach Randy Borchers. Only three starters return from last year's team that was 7-5.
Senior receivers Justin Schlarman and junior receiver Mikey Armour return, along with senior offensive lineman Austin Pressman. Armour caught 34 passes for 393 yards and two touchdowns in 2016, and Schlarman added 28 catches for 392 yards and four touchdowns.
Schlarman should also get some carries this season, along with junior Chris Collins and sophomore Anthony Witchey. Senior tight end Nick Meyers and junior receiver Dillon Perry will also be options downfield.
The biggest question mark for the Jaguars is at quarterback. Armour, sophomore Jensen Linder and freshman Jeremiah Lee have each gotten reps under center this preseason, according to Borchers, but none have won the job yet.
Schlarman made 83 tackles and five interceptions in 2016 and will lead a defense that lost eight starters.
Will Highlands bounce back from 3-8?
It was an extremely un-Highlands-like football season in 2016 as the Bluebirds won only three games, suffered a seven-game losing streak, and exited the Class 5A playoffs the first week of the postseason.
It was the worst record since 1955 for a program with 26 state titles and perennial winning expectations.
So, can the Birds bounce right back?
For that to happen, the defense will have to improve from last season's group that allowed 40 or more points in seven of the eight losses. The Bluebirds will also look to maintain the offensive firepower from last season, when the Birds averaged more than 33 points per game. Senior receiver Nick Veneman is the top returner on offense after catching 46 passes for 1,026 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016.
Newport Central Catholic ground attack will be key early on
The Thoroughbreds have to replace three-year starting quarterback Patrick Henschen and receiver/safety/punter Trent Wrobleski this season, so look for senior Jason Decker and junior Kyle Kelly to carry the load for the offense out of the backfield -- at least early on.
Kelly led the Breds with 821 yards on 152 carries and 14 touchdowns in 2016, and Decker picked up 371 yards on 49 carries with seven touchdowns.
Can Holy Cross reload?
Holy Cross knocked rival NewCath out of the playoffs in the state quarterfinals last November before falling one win shy of the Class 2A state final, but running backs Xavier Abernathy and Derrick Barnes have graduated. Barnes amassed 1,567 yards on 150 carries with 22 touchdowns in 2016 and Abernathy added 1,050 yards on 175 carries with 18 touchdowns.
That's a lot of offense for the Indians to replace in 2017.
Conner has an experienced offensive line to protect new QB
Eastern Kentucky recruit and senior guard Peyton Knippenberg will join senior center Josh Walls and senior guard James Neal on the Cougars' experienced offensive line as Conner breaks in a new quarterback in 2017.