The anticipation for Pensacola’s most popular prep sport has been climbing all summer to its preseason peak.
Kickoff is here.
Today’s action will yield three preseason games — Tate at Gulf Breeze, Navarre at Milton and Choctaw at Pine Forest.
The Class 7A Aggies return 11 starters — six offensively and five on defense — and 2013 PNJ Coach of the Year Ronnie Douglas, who led the Aggies to an eight-win season in his first year at Tate.
“It’s one of those things about the Panhandle — everyone loves football,” he said.
“It’s nice to get a little preview of the season. We’ve got some new starters on offense and have replaced a few guys on defense, especially defensive backs.
“Gulf Breeze should give us a good test in the secondary.”
The Class 5A Gulf Breeze Dolphins will play host to Tate and are led offensively by running back Josh Irby.
The senior led the Dolphins in rushing last year after putting up 575 yards and five touchdowns.
Irby will be complemented by fellow senior Jacob Kubik, who hauled in 12 passes for 373 yards in 2013. Half of Kubik’s receptions went for touchdowns.
The Dolphins face a bit of inexperience with their young O-Line and sophomore quarterback Tyler Phelps under center.
“We’ll call some plays that we normally wouldn’t run in a regular season game,” Dolphins coach Chris Nemith said.
“Offensively, I want us to execute and communicate.”
Defensively, the Dolphins have had to shuffle up the secondary after playmaker Sam Covell suffered a thumb injury last week in practice.
Backup quarterback Peyton Hoover will fill in at free safety for Covell.
“Peyton is gonna have to step in and play a big role for us,” said Nemith, entering his 11th year as head coach. “That’s what Kickoff Classics are for, to get kids used to the speed of the game.
“Tate will be well coached, and they will bring speed — we need to see that speed; it’s hard to mimic that in practice.”
Navarre at Milton
Navarre heads into Milton having made the state playoffs in three of the last four years.
The Raiders bring back eight members of last season’s offense — including quarterback Matthew Webb, two tailbacks and four offensive linemen.
While Navarre maintains continuity in its running game, the Raiders lost their top two receivers — a duo which combined for 84 catches and eight touchdowns in 2013.
Defensively, the Raiders strength lies in the secondary.
Returning starters Michael Sandle, Dylan Main and Lavonte Geisser all bolster the defensive backfield.
Milton returns seven starters on defense and three on offense from a team that got off to a slow start but finished strong in 2013.
The Panthers started the season with seven-straight losses before knocking off district rivals Pace, Escambia and Pine Forest to earn a playoff berth.
The Panthers will focus heavily on the run game this year, both offensively and defensively.
Tyler Belcher — who finished sixth in the area with 109 tackles in 2013 — and D’Ondre Johns will both be pivotal in stopping the run at the linebacker position.
Quarterback Trevor Walters enters this year as a starter after earning the spot midway through last season.
Choctaw at Pine Forest
Pine Forest plays host to Choctaw, a team who went 9-4 last season and knocked off Pace in the Region 1-6A quarterfinals.
This game could serve as a measuring stick for any Escambia County teams who face the Indians this season, including Pace in Week 1.
The Eagles seek to start this season on the right foot after finishing 2-8 in 2013 — Pine Forest’s first season below .500 in 10 years.
Expect the Eagles’ experienced defense to shoulder a great deal of the load early in the season, at least while their younger counterparts on offense have time to grow.
Speedy outside linebacker Oliva Wright aims to make noise this season after making 54 tackles in 2013.
With senior Daveyon Finkley back in the mix at wide receiver and running back Dejon Brown returning, the Eagles have the foundation for an explosive offense this year.
Navarre High at Milton, 7 p.m.
Choctaw at Pine Forest, 7 p.m.
Tate High at Gulf Breeze, 7:30 p.m.
Jay at Baker, 7 p.m.
Pensacola High at West Florida, 7 p.m.
Pace at Crestview, 7 p.m.
East Gadsden at Washington, 7 p.m.
Listen to the Game of the Week (Pensacola at West Florida) on ESPN Radio Pensacola with hosts Paul Chestnutt, Ruddie Marques, Bubba Griffith and the PNJ sports staff.