Back to the future! McKinney high schools open this year’s campaign with identical opponents from last year: Boyd faces Mesquite Horn, McKinney duels Richardson Pearce and McKinney North battles Carrollton Newman Smith.

As for player input, we start the season in the same place every play from scrimmage starts: with the centers. Boyd’s Seth Ambrose, McKinney’s Caleb Stricklin and North’s Andrew Grisham get the pigskin rolling this year with insight from the oft-unheard-from trenches.

McKINNEY NORTH BULLDOGS

Don’t let North’s 45-16 rout of Newman Smith last year give you ideas about Friday’s rematch in McKinney. This year’s Trojan squad, coming off a 6-5 season and first-round exit from the playoffs, is loaded with experience: Eight, count ‘em, eight starters return – on each side of the ball.

“It’s a big test,” assures North coach Mike Fecci. “They’re a playoff football team. Coach [Paul] Ressa does a great job over there, gets those guys believing in what they’re doing. They’re going to come out and give us all we want, there’s no doubt about it.”

The Bulldogs’ offensive line fires off Monday in 99-degree heat.

The Bulldogs’ offensive line fires off Monday in 99-degree heat.

 

“We’ve got to play well early, that’s the key,” Fecci says. “And then stay in it and, hopefully, try to pull it out late if we have to.” Ultimately, he says, “We’ve got to go play. It’s about us getting better this week, about us trying to work on things we need to work on.”

Last year’s contest was over fairly quickly with the Bulldogs building a 21-3 first-quarter lead, stoked by Bryce Balous’ 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. And the now-graduated Nick Hutchins, in his first start at quarterback, threw for 260 yards and four touchdowns.

This time around, Trojans senior quarterback Reed Abbott is back with numerous dangerous options at wide receiver. “They’ve got a lot of weapons back,” Fecci notes. “Anytime a guy’s coming back that’s a quarterback, that’s always a scary deal because that means he’s been there, done that. He’ll be better composed this game than he was last year, when he was starting out.”

Bulldog fans will watch for Christian Files and Micah Bualicex, who debut at quarterback and running back, respectively. Files will also handle punting duties, as Hutchins did last season.

Defensively, Newman Smith outside linebackers Adarius Boyd and Malik Carter operate like human vise-grips on the edges. “Those are the two guys [on a defense], who’ve got to be great athletes – which they are,” Fecci says. “They’ve got to be good tacklers – which they are. We’ve got to find ways to control those guys and, hopefully, we can do that.”

 

 

Of course, the Trojans, like every other North opponent, must find an answer for the Bulldogs’ dominating defensive front, led by Justin Madubuike and Gabe Dutze.

Center Andrew Grisham and McKinney North’s entire offensive line return this year.

Center Andrew Grisham and McKinney North’s entire offensive line return this year.

 

On North’s other side of the ball, senior center Andrew Grisham says being part of an entire returning starting O-line makes for “comfortable” play. “You’re brothers,” he says, “you’ve bonded together over games. You’ve pretty much seen every situation you can go up against, so it’s pretty awesome.”

Grisham looks forward to that first game-action hit of the season. Though “nerve-wracking,” he says, when it’s over, “all the butterflies disappear, and it just becomes natural.”

“You’ve got to be a leader,” Grisham says of playing center. “I have to make sure everybody [on the o-line] knows what they’re doing.” And that means encouraging fellow linemen after a mistake. “And I’ve got to know what I’m doing, so it’s a lot of responsibility.”

Of the Trojans, Grisham says, “I’m expecting them to be better. … It’s going to be a lot of mental preparation and physical preparation.” Grisham’s favorite NFL offensive lineman? Left tackle Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys.

Did you know? The Bulldogs capitalized on two first-quarter Newman Smith mishandled kickoffs last year to build an early lead. … North offensive lineman Gage Thompson stands 6-foot-7.

McKINNEY HIGH LIONS

McKinney coach Jeff Smith has made his decision: He’ll go with two quarterbacks – senior Tyree Johnson and sophomore Damon Witmer – in Friday’s opener at Pearce. “Both, I thought, did a good job [in the scrimmage],” Smith says, “and we’re going to use them both.” In the four-man battle for quarterback, Smith had previously noted that Witmer and Johnson possessed the added punch of being running threats. Smith adds that Johnson, when not taking snaps, will still be on the field, receiving and rushing from other positions.

Center Caleb Stricklin looks forward to that first-game contact.

Center Caleb Stricklin looks forward to that first-game contact.

 

McKinney prevailed, 26-21, in last year’s clash with Pearce at Ron Poe Stadium. In that one, the Lions got up early, lost the lead twice, then rallied to win on Rickey Fantroy’s fourth-quarter 5-yard touchdown run.

A big story for the Mustangs this year is how few starters, perhaps five overall, return to the lineup. Smith downplays that as a factor. “You’re right, on paper,” he says, “they don’t have very many guys coming back – and we really don’t either. It’s going to be pretty equal in that aspect. We might have a couple more coming back on offense than they do.”

Pearce senior quarterback Hank Hughes does return – and that’s plenty big for the Mustangs. “He’s a dual-threat guy,” Smith says. “He’s the kind of guy that can extend plays and, really, take a game over. We’ve got to do a great job of containing him and slowing him down. And he’s got a great target in the [Jake] Griffin kid, an all-district receiver. … Pearce is well-coached and always does a great job – and they’ve got [those] two pretty big weapons coming back.”

 

 

On defense, the Mustangs are less experienced – perhaps an opening for veteran Lions running back Walker Torrain, who rambled for 190 yards and two TDs versus Pearce last year.

And look for sophomore Matt Gadek, who gets his first varsity carries Friday. Receivers Fantroy, Seth Hunt and Joseph Robinson will attempt to open up the Mustangs’ secondary.

McKinney defensive backs drill on Tuesday.

McKinney defensive backs drill on Tuesday.

 

Smith says this year’s opening skirmish with Pearce could be another close one. “Just like in any first game of the year, it really comes down to who makes the fewest mistakes, who takes care of the football, who tackles well and who’s in pretty good shape. All those factors come in heavily to that first game of the year.”

Leading the Lions’ offensive charge will be senior center Caleb Stricklin. “Everyone has to be on the same page, same note,” he says of a center’s communication duties. “And it definitely takes being a fast-thinker.” As for that first game-contact, “It’s like a big adrenalin rush,” Strickland says. “All the work from 2-a-days and the heat and the running – it makes it all worth it.”

A center Stricklin most admires is former UT-San Antonio Roadrunner and McKinney Lion Nate Leonard. “He’s trained me a lot,” Stricklin says. “He’s one of the guys who’s smaller in size but he managed to get a D-I scholarship and started all four years.”

A win Friday would be more than welcome for McKinney, though Smith also sees the bigger picture. “Having a chance to win our first game would be a great thing and great way to start the year,” he says, “though it’s one out of 10 games that we play. We’re all about trying to get ready for district play and it’s going to be a process. … But, yeah, we’d love to win this first one. That would be great for our kids.”

Did you know? McKinney’s first score last season was a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by Byron Robinson.

McKINNEY BOYD BRONCOS

While Boyd coach Don Drake liked part of what he saw in last year’s 21-15 loss at Horn, another part of Boyd’s game, he says, must improve. The Broncos’ defense shut-out the high-powered Jaguars in the second half, but offensive production, Drake notes, was lacking. Correcting the latter may hold the key to a Boyd victory Thursday.

Running back Kaeden Markham (1) prepares on Monday for his start against Mesquite Horn.

Running back Kaeden Markham (1) prepares on Monday for his start against Mesquite Horn.

 

“I think we’ve got to have more consistency moving the football and scoring points, obviously, than we did a year ago,” Drake says. “I felt like there were some opportunities we had to put some more points on the board and we didn’t do so.” He adds, “I think that game played about as well as we could have wanted it to from a defensive perspective.”

A year ago, Jeremiah Campbell’s 47-yard touchdown catch-and-run drew Boyd to within 14-9 in the second quarter, but Horn struck again before halftime and the Broncos mustered one TD the rest of the way.

Drake reminds that Boyd starts 2015 with more experience at quarterback, receiver and in the offensive line. “Hopefully,” he says, “that’s translates into fewer mental mistakes, better execution.”

 

 

This game features two perennial playoff teams – Horn with seven straight post-season trips, Boyd with five. As for slowing Horn’s explosive offense again, Drake says, “We’ve obviously got to contain the big play. They like to throw the ball vertical down the field and they’ve got speed at all the skill spots. They’re going to want to challenge us in the secondary and see if we can hold up.”

The Jags, 11-2 regional semi-finalists last year, return starting quarterback Chris Robison and multiple talented receivers. Robison threw for 3,800 yards and 44 touchdowns last year as a sophomore. Tall wideouts Jared Atkinson (6-3, 205) – a Baylor commit – and Bryston Cummings (6-3, 195) will stretch the field at every opportunity.

McKinney Boyd center Seth Ambrose’s first varsity action came against No. 1 Allen last year.

McKinney Boyd center Seth Ambrose’s first varsity action came against No. 1 Allen last year.

 

The Broncos counter through the air with senior quarterback Grant Restmeyer and returning big-play receivers Campbell, Brandon Bowling and Stephen Driskell. At running back, the Broncos look to new starter Kaeden Markham and Doren Gibson, who could see time as well.

Horn lost loads of starters to graduation, perhaps hitting the offensive line hardest. “They’re breaking in some new faces there,” Drakes notes. “Defensively,” he says, “their D-line is probably their biggest strength.”

One facing that strength will be Boyd senior Seth Ambrose, who moves into the starting center role, vacated by now-graduated standout Matt Morse. “He taught me some moves, for sure,” Ambrose says. “I wrestled in the off-season with him.”

Ambrose got valuable playing time last year when Morse was injured in Week 3. “That was pretty crazy,” Ambrose says, “because it was my first varsity playing time ever – and it was against Allen. Some big dudes, but I thought I handled it really well and it gave me a little taste of what was to come.” He also saw extensive playing time against Flower Mound and Marcus.

What makes a good center? “I think you have to be one of the smartest people on the line,” Ambrose says, adding quicky, “I’m not saying I am. … And, normally,” he says, “centers are really good technically because, generally, they’re the smaller guys.”

The NFL center Ambrose most admires? Nick Mangold of the New York Jets.

Did you know? Boyd’s first points last season came when a Horn defender was tackled for a safety after intercepting a pass near his own goal line. … The Broncos have never played a Thursday opener.

THIS WEEK

Thursday, Aug. 27

McKinney Boyd vs. Mesquite Horn, 7 p.m., Ron Poe Stadium

Friday, Aug. 28

McKinney at Richardson Pearce, 7:30 p.m.

McKinney North vs. Carrollton Newman Smith, 7:30 p.m., Ron Poe Stadium

FEARLESS (AND WORTHLESS) PREDICTIONS

McKinney Boyd 34, Mesquite Horn 32

(Don’t leave early!)

McKinney 24, Richardson Pearce 17

(Tyree and Walker T. … Say no more.)

McKinney North 31, Carrollton Newman Smith 29

(The Bulldogs’ offense shines late.)