Along with a new assistant coach and almost an entirely new starting lineup, the Thomson Bulldogs have a renewed outlook on the coming football season.
Gone are most of the 300-lb. offensive linemen that frightened opposing defenders. Gone are the punishing veteran linebackers that clogged up the run, game after game.
In fact, only four Thomson defenders returned to the starting lineup this season. Five returned on offense, three of which are in the backfield. The lack of experience concerns Head Coach Luther Welsh, but he believes his young players have the potential to become an excellent team.
How they handle all that potential is entirely up to them.
"Those kids have the talent. We just have to get it out of them," he said.
Experience may bring improvement, but with three tough games to start the season, the young Bulldogs will have to grow up quick.
Thomson's first opponent, the AAAA Salem Seminoles went 9-2 last season. Traditional rival Washington-Wilkes moved up to AA but last year posted a 12-3 record, falling in the state title game. Jefferson County, despite dropping to AA this season, retained much of its roster from last year's 10-1 squad.
So much for the cupcake pre-region schedule.
"If we get by the first three games of the season, then we might be pretty decent," Coach Welsh said. "...It's not like people that can't play, and you're just playing them so you can win. All of them are going to test us."
From there, the Bulldogs can't let up. Coach Welsh said the unpredictability of the Augusta-area teams in the region schedule keep him on his toes.
"You don't know down there when one's going to come up and be better than they were the year before," he said.
Hephzibah and Benedictine are the Bulldogs' opponents from the other half of Region 3-AAA. Sub-region opponents include the old standards, Butler, Glenn Hills, Harlem and Cross Creek.
The new 3-AAA kid in town is Washington County. For the last regular-season game, Thomson faces the team it handed a first-round playoff loss to last season. It's a game high school football fans across the state are keying in on.
But if the offense hasn't hit its stride long before then, Thomson fans may be surprised. Given that a new man will be calling the shots on the sidelines, many are excited at the possibilities.
Still, a gap exists that former Screven County Head Coach and new Thomson Offensive Coordinator Mark Daniel said needs to be bridged.
"Against a bigger team, teams in our classification, we have got a long long way to go before we're ready to beat some good teams," he said.
Returning starters are of utmost importance to the Bulldogs' offensive. The quintuplet of seniors, quarterback Anthony Erwin, fullback LaBrandon Hudson, tackle Martell Winfrey and center Daniel Cheely should provide solid leadership.
Erwin and Hudson combined to rush for more than 2,100 yards last season. Junior halfback D.T. Brown, who started several games in the 2005 campaign, will once again hear his number called a great deal for the Bulldogs.
On the other side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator John Barnett has similar problems to the youthful offense.
"We will be the youngest we have been on defense since 1987," he said. "I've never had to start two sophomore linebackers. ...Replacing six of the front seven on defense is quite a challenge."
Despite senior leadership up front from defensive end Deltrick Sneed, the most experienced section of the defense is the secondary. Senior defensive back Vincent Scott has five picks in his first two seasons on the varsity squad, and other veterans show just as much promise for the coming season.
But even the secondary lacks sound, tested backups.
"Our secondary is solid at three positions, but the fourth is very green. If we can't stop the run, teams won't have to test our secondary," Coach Barnett said. "Another problem is that there is absolutely no depth. Every injury will weaken us considerably, and there are always injuries at some point of the season."
Maybe it's the five decades of high school football experience talking, but Coach Welsh summed up his goal for the season very simply.
"If we lose, we lose. If we win, we win," he said. "But I'm not going to get carried away as long as we get a little better."