The Walnut Ridge High School football team appears to be the most experienced bunch of the City League-South Division with 14 returning starters.

The Walnut Ridge High School football team appears to be the most experienced bunch of the City League-South Division with 14 returning starters.

Still, fourth-year coach Byron Mattox appreciates what must be replaced from last year's team, which finished at 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the league to tie Briggs for fourth.

For one, the Scots no longer have two-time, first-team all-state running back Brandon Rice, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards each of the last two seasons. He is playing at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.

Other key losses include quarterback Alvin Busby, a two-year starter; linebacker Zakee Bashir, a Marshall recruit; and linebacker Lamar Ross, a three-time, first-team all-league selection.

"We've lost a lot of our offense, so we're going to rely on our defense a lot," said Mattox, whose team opens Friday at home against Watkins Memorial. "We're going to have to create some turnovers. We've got a lot of veterans on that side of the ball and, hopefully, they can hold us together until we get the offense up there with them."

Eight starters return on a defense that Mattox says possesses plenty of speed.

That experience is spread out with seniors James Jenkins (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), Wesley Thompson (5-11, 240) and Austin Traylor (6-3, 200) on the line, Alex Tanksley (6-1, 180) and Cameron Trudell (5-10, 210) at linebacker and Donavon Gwynn (6-0, 160), Kollin Dunson (5-10, 165) and Marsean Ross (6-0, 180) in the secondary.

After finishing 4-6 in Mattox's first season in 2006, Walnut Ridge had one of the league's stingiest defenses in 2007 when it went 7-4. It did so again last season, holding opponents to 13.7 points per game.

"We've been stressing competing in camp and getting after it," said Mattox, who has 19 returning letterwinners and his largest roster ever with 65 players. "We want to be able to compete against the elite teams of the league."

The Scots have lost to both Marion-Franklin and Eastmoor the last three seasons.

"We just have to play quick because we're small and we're going to have to use our speed to win," said senior Durrell Douglas, a three-year starter on the offensive line. "Our athletic ability is just going to have to make up for our (lack of) size."

Douglas is one of five returning starters on offense. The others are Trudell and senior Tysean Johnson (5-10, 210) on the line and seniors Marta Simington (5-10, 170) and Gwynn at wide receiver.

Others expected to be key contributors on offense are Traylor at quarterback, junior Jordan Usher (5-8, 170) and sophomore Shawn Toney (5-8, 200) at running back and Dunson at wide receiver.

Hoping to take advantage of his team's athleticism and speed, Mattox has switched from the I-formation to a spread-option offense.

"Austin has all the intangibles for the positions and he's a great leader," Mattox said. "He's getting better as a quarterback, so we're going to ride with him for a while."

Sophomore Freddie Hardgrove (5-9, 150) also could see time at quarterback.

"We have a lot of seniors on the offensive side of the ball that played last year," Douglas said. "But we've got a lot of work to do, so I guess we'll see what happens."