Second-year head coach and former Crittenden County star Sean Thompson has a long list of guys he's got to replace for 2019. Payton Riley. Sean O'Leary. Brock Langston. Gavin Dickerson. Devin Porter. Devon Nesbitt. Ethan Dossett. Hunter Boone. All massive contributors for a Rockets squad that went 11-2 and sniffed a regional title in 2018.

Boone (University of the Cumberlands), Dossett (UT Martin) and Nesbitt (Campbellsville) finished their glittering careers in Marion by combining for 66 of the team's 81 touchdowns last year - leaving a colossal void of talent and leadership that clearly must be filled.

And that, Thompson notes, is the trick.

"As a coach, we have to find a gameplan that fits the team that we have now," he said.

"And it's like we told the team at the end of last year: 'we can't ever put that team back together again.' This is a whole new team, and different people just have to fill those roles. Maybe not the same way that they did, but people will fill those roles."

The new-look Rockets - still toting aspirations of a Class A, District 1 title in 2019 - may go as far as new first-team running back Xander Tabor takes them. Spelling Nesbitt a lot last season, the 6-1, 200-pound junior also plays a bit of corner and safety, and he finished 2018 with 408 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on 59 carries. And don't be surprised if Thompson's offense includes not one, but two quarterbacks for most of the season.

It's not a two-quarterback system, per se, but instead is specific packages for guys like senior Hunter Jones and junior Braxton Winders.

"Hunter Jones is a guy who has started for us on the defensive side of the ball since his sophomore year," Thomspon said.

"He's dependable. He knows the offense. He knows the offense really well, so he's comfortable in getting guys into the offense and showing guys what to do. He doesn't have the arm strength Hunter Boone had, but not many people do. He is smart and makes good decisions.

"Behind him is a junior who has started for us at linebacker since his sophomore year, and honestly started for us some his freshman year, in Braxton Winders. He's more of a Tebow-type guy. He can throw it, but he can really run it. He runs the ball well. He runs the ball with power. He's a grinder.

"This season, we'll see both of those guys in games. But I'm not a guy who wants to go into a two-quarterback system going into games. I want to have it decided before we go into the first game. But I think we'll have both guys take snaps."

The most encouraging thing about the Rockets this year are the returning pieces defensively, which include a host of top tacklers in Winders (100 tackles, led the team), Tyler Boone (94 tackles, 15 TFL), Lathan Easley (89 tackles, 14 TFL), Jones (55 tackles, five TFL), Caden McCalister (41 tackles, missed six games) and Preston Turley - who missed most of last season, but is now 6-5, 230 pounds and prepared to play some "X" on offense.

"I think our district is going to be one of the best in the western half of the state, and just because of the competition," Thompson added. "Not top three teams or anything like that, but just competition-wise."

Pilot light

Fulton County is out to prove 2018 wasn't a fluke, and instead a glimpse into the future.

The Pilots opened up 4-0 last year for the first time in more than three decades, and though it did come against Gleason (Tenn.), Fulton City, Stewart County (Tenn.) and South Fulton (Tenn.), the improvement was clear.

Jerome Warren was finding rhythm at quarterback. Caleb Kimble was rampaging on the ground. The defense was hardnosed at times.

Fulton County football, however, seems to have learned more about where it's headed with its defeats a year ago: a nailbiting 23-22 road loss at district-rival Russellville, a 62-28 barnburner defeat at home against Class 4A Calloway County, a 38-32 overtime edging at Class 2A Ballard Memorial - and eventually a 21-2 first-round loss at Bethlehem.

Common denominator? The Pilots were consistently competitive.

They nearly came away with three more victories, and none would've been more important than the team's first playoff win since 1998.

The only true stinker in Fulton County's 5-6 season came at Crittenden County, 59-8, but those senior-laden Rockets rumbled to a Class A regional championship appearance against Campbellsville.

That's a position these Pilots would like to be in by year's end, and James Bridges - in the second year of his second stint as Pilots head coach - believes now is the time to make up the ground and strike while there's momentum to be had.

"I think we've got a chance to make a run at it," he said.

Good news for the Pilots; they've really got a guy who can make "a run at it" in Kimble.

The soon-to-be senior stud exploded onto the scene last year with 1,638 yards rushing (22nd in Kentucky, regardless of class) and 23 rushing touchdowns (T-18th in Kentucky, regardless of class), and should be on hand for the bulk load again in '19. He's just returned from an overseas trip in Australia, where he played basketball as a representative of the United State in the annual Down Under Sports camp, and Bridges said there weren't many days in which Kimble didn't make contact with the team.

"He's called and checked on us almost every day, just to make sure we're doing everything in practice," Bridges said. "He's called after every 7-on-7 to see how we've done. And he's been working out with USA Basketball, and he's been putting in the work there, and we think that's only going to transfer to football. He's an athlete. He's good."

Warren, meanwhile, finished with 454 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions on 28-for-70 passing a year ago, but should be in for better numbers with Devin Turner, Josh Cole, Jequan Warren and rising star Broc Bridges in the offensive fold.

"Going to all of these 7-on-7s and different camps, he's really showed out," Bridges said of his son, Broc. "He's pushing about 6-4, 205-210 pounds, and he can go with them. And he can catch the ball. You add that with Devin Turner, Josh Cole and those guys...they can go up and get the ball. And they want to."

Fulton County's toughest job - aside from its daunting district schedule - will be to stay healthy along the offensive line and at its skill positions.

It's already a concern for Bridges, too, who's coming into 2019 toting just six true offensive linemen before he'll have to dive into his freshman and sophomore classes.

Bulldogs building

In this most recent KHSAA Football Realignment, Fulton City will not be playing a district schedule. However, second-year head coach Harold Hutcherson has his team playing a robust schedule - which currently includes home games against Fulton County and Ballard Memorial, a road game at Webster County and two more soon-to-be announced road games.

The tough part about this rebuild, however, is that the Bulldogs haven't won a game since Sept. 2, 2016, when they topped cross-county rival Fulton County 40-18 at home behind a 300-yard team rushing effort.

G/DT Jakiran Donald - one of three seniors on this year's squad (alongside OL/DL Zion Yisrael and QB/LB Hunter Hayes) - is the only remaining player to have experienced it.

Strange district

Second-year head coach and former Panther star Mikie Benton doesn't have plans for Russellville to remain out of the hunt much longer.

So after taking thumpings against Trigg County (45-16), Murray (59-12), Crittenden County (28-12) and Franklin-Simpson (53-6) a year ago, Benton's hope is that his junior class - which includes rising stars in WR/RB/DB Chevis Elliott, WR/FS Jackson Hampton and C/DL Josh Todd - and a sophomore quarterback in Lennon Ries helps lead the way.

"We will be a young team with not many seniors at all," Benton said. "This will be a junior-led team, all who took bumps and bruises as freshmen and sophomores. Expect this team to compete for a district championship and deep playoff run."

Meanwhile, Caverna - all the way from Horse Cave, Kentucky - joins the district once again in this new realignment cycle. The Colonels return both guys who took snaps at quarterback last season (Drew Rhodes and Zyier Yates), the top tackler in Hayden Zavaleta and roster that's top heavy in the junior and senior classes.

Caverna, however, only came away with one win in 2018 - a road forfeit from Green County due to an ineligible competitor, and sustained heavy losses to Campbellsville (57-0), Crittenden County (63-0), Bethlehem (39-0) and Fort Knox (71-48).

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