“This is a veteran group, because we’ve got 25 seniors coming back,” Muschamp said. “The majority of them have played in critical situations. We’ve got a handful of juniors who played as sophomores. We’ve got some kids who have been in live fire, so to speak.”
The Lions failed to advance out of the first round for the first time since 2004, the year before Muschamp became head coach, in a 38-7 loss to Carver of Columbus, where the Tigers rushed for 354 yards.
Returning to solidify the middle of the defense is linebacker John Coletti, the team’s leading returning tackler. The Lions want to improve on a unit that surrendered 184.3 rushing yards per game and 25 rushing touchdowns.
“Our issue was stopping the run,” Muschamp said. “At every level of football, if you make somebody have to throw, you’ve got a pretty good chance [to win]. I think that comes back to being better up front and more consistent play from our linebackers.”
The Lions nevertheless extended their playoff appearance streak to 10 straight years with a 35-28 win over Greater Atlanta Christian in their play-in game, sparked by a remarkable performance by Grant Haley in which he rushed for two touchdowns, threw a touchdown pass and returned a kickoff for a score.
He finished the year with 785 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns, averaging 7.9 yards per carry, and will be crucial to the team’s success in 2012.
Luke Hart (590 yards passing, five touchdowns) and Willie Candler (446 yards passing, three touchdowns) saw extensive time at quarterback last season and will be in the mix again.
The Lions lost their three leading receivers from last season in Mason Marsteller, Cyrus Wilson and Brooks Schoen.
On the offensive line, Muschamp knows he has dependable players in Bennett Gwynn and Forrest Bell. Alex Port, who started at nose tackle last season, returns to anchor the defensive front.
Coletti leads the defense at middle linebacker after finishing second on the team last season in tackles (43). Flanking Coletti will likely be Nick Boden, Craig Rollins and Corey Erdoes.
Haley and Winn Martin, who combined for seven interceptions last season, will line up at cornerback, with Mitchell Marino and Andrew Siegel providing additional support in the secondary.
Martin returns at punter, and Brendan McGowan also does at placekicker.
The Lions, part of the five-team Region 6-AA after the GHSA reclassification, also no longer have to contend with Buford, which had won four of the past five state titles and was a thorn in Lovett’s side in region play before moving up to Class AAA.
“Especially now that the GHSA [moved up] Buford and all of them, we have a shot at state this year, definitely,” Coletti said.
Aug. 24 at Woodward Academy
Aug. 31 Blessed Trinity
Sept. 14 Marist
Sept. 21 at St. Pius X
Sept. 28 Fort Payne (Ala.)
Oct. 5 at Washington County
Oct. 19 Hapeville Charter*
Oct. 26 at Wesleyan*
Nov. 2 at Westminster*
Nov. 9 Greater Atlanta Christian*
*denotes region game