What to look for in Class 4-A football this season.
• Favorite: Highlands suffered a surprising 37-34 loss to Collins in last year’s state final but enters the 2014 campaign as the team to beat. Quarterback Beau Hoge passed for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns in backup duty last year but will be the starter this season.
• Not far behind: Collins returns just six starters (three offense/three defense) from its championship team but has several players who saw action in the final. Bushy Wells is solid at running back and linebacker, and Browning Becherer takes over at quarterback.
• Sleeper: Covington Catholic hasn’t been able to get past nemesis Highlands in recent seasons, but this could be the year for the Colonels if they can stay healthy. Adam Wagner returns at quarterback and will have one of the state’s top offensive linemen (tackle Sam Murrer) blocking for him.
• Top college prospect: Warren East senior running back/linebacker Eli Brown (6-2, 200 pounds) did it all for the Raiders last season, rushing for 1,186 yards and 15 touchdowns and recording 50 tackles and two interceptions. Brown originally committed to Vanderbilt but switched to the University of Kentucky.
• Biggest shoes to fill: Dale Mueller stepped down after 11 state championships and 250 victories as the head coach at Highlands. Longtime defensive coordinator Brian Weinrich replaced Mueller as head coach during the off-season.
• The next big thing: Ashland Blazer junior running back Quinton Baker (5-10, 180) has rushed for more than 2,500 yards over his first two seasons and has a scholarship offer from UK.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
• Lexington Catholic has lost to Highlands in the state semifinals the past three years and should be in contention again behind senior quarterback Reese Ryan, who passed for 3,349 yards and 37 touchdowns last season. He has scholarship offers from Louisville, Illinois and Akron.
• Chuck Smith is back on the sideline at Boyle County, where he posted a 142-33 record in 13 seasons and won five straight state titles from 1999-2003. He joined the coaching staff at the University of Kentucky in 2005.
• Johnson Central may have the state’s best kicker in junior Tyler Pack, who made a state-record 60-yarder against Greenup County last year and also nailed a 58-yarder a month earlier against Perry County Central.
THREE MUST-SEE GAMES
• Covington Catholic at Highlands, Sept. 26: Battle for supremacy in Northern Kentucky.
• Boyle County at Lexington Catholic, Oct. 3: New coaches go at it as Boyle County’s Chuck Smith faces Lexington Catholic’s Mark Perry, the former head coach at Central Hardin.
• Collins at North Oldham, Oct. 24: District rivals battle in a rematch of last year’s regional final, which the Titans won 42-14.