That’s the same team last year that put together a six-game winning streak and won eight of the last nine regular-season games. That’s the Wildcats team that also was a win away from winning Class 3A, Region 5.
How could this group be better? First, most of the same players are back.
“The good thing for us this year as opposed to last year is we have a lot of guys coming back,” Miller said. “We’ve had some good practices and we’re able to do a lot more polishing than teaching, especially on defense. It’s always good when you don’t have to teach as much and can fine tune.”
It’s hard to ignore the excitement the offense will bring with new quarterback Tre Smith, but Miller said the defense, which returns eight starters, is where Saks will shine this season, especially early on.
“We hope we can lean on them early in the season while the offense gels,” Miller said. “They know what to do and have had experience playing on Friday nights, so we’re excited about our defense.”
The Wildcats’ returners include senior defensive lineman Vincent Hilliard, all three linebackers — junior Monty Young and seniors Tyler Burnett and Devontae Young — and junior defensive backs Devin Harris and Raekwon Blake.
“We’re going to be better than last year,” Burnett said. “We’re not as young and have a lot more experience. We’re so much hungrier. It’s a good feeling to know everyone wants to win as much as I do.”
Offensively, the attack will center on Smith. Miller said the former wide receiver was called upon for a position change because “he gives us a chance to score every play.”
“We’re going to try to build our offense around things he does well and let him go out there and make plays for us,” he said. “He’s done a good job for us so far. Tre’s going to make some plays, but he’s got to protect the football and make good decisions.”
Smith will have Devontae Young and sophomore Calvin Figueroa in the backfield, and he is already appreciates running the offense and the players around him.
“We have a nice line. We have our center back and a nice left guard. We have a good running back and people that can catch the ball,” Smith said. “We’ve got some harder workers, including Calvin. Our line worked the hardest.”
The 2012 season featured a three-week stretch of tight games for Saks. From a 12-7 win against Alexandria, a 35-21 victory over Glencoe and beating Weaver 20-13, Miller said winning close games is something the Wildcats will have to continue this season.
“Last year when we played Glencoe during Week 6, I thought we were playing as well as we could, but near halftime (running back) Ladarius (Young) got hurt,” Miller said. “The rest of the season it was sort of just patch work, I guess, on offense. We just kind of did the best we could and got through.”
The depth and improvements Saks will bring to the field this fall may have the Wildcats in a different situation. And while Saks has a chance to make some noise this fall Miller and the team haven’t really talked about a plan for it. While most teams set goals and give inspirational quotes, the Wildcats are unique.
“We haven’t really gotten into any of that,” Miller said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time and haven’t really set any goals.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.
Saks at a glance
Head coach: Jonathan Miller (8-3 in one season at Saks)
Last year’s record: 8-3, including 6-1 in Class 3A, Region 5; Finished second in Region 5; Lost to Sylvania in first round of playoffs.
Outlook: A year removed from finishing one game from the Region 5 title, Saks is loaded with most of its same starters on defense and is looking to take over. Miller said the eight starters on defense are season-ready, but the offense, which has six starters back, needs more time together. With arguably the most athletic player in the county, Tre Smith, taking over at quarterback, Saks may be extremely hard to stop when the Wildcats get it going.
Aug. 30, at Wellborn
Sept. 6, vs. White Plains
Sept. 13, vs. Susan Moore
Sept. 20, at Ashville
Sept. 27, vs. Alexandria
Oct. 4, vs. Glencoe
Oct. 11, at Weaver
Oct. 18, vs. Piedmont
Oct. 25, at Cleveland
Nov. 1, vs. Jacksonville