The Walnut Ridge High School football program has not lacked talent in recent years.

The Walnut Ridge High School football program has not lacked talent in recent years.

Last season's top receiver, Robert Wheelwright, now is playing at the University of Wisconsin. Other top recruits who went to BCS conference schools in the past include tight end Austin Traylor (Wisconsin), wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright (Minnesota) and running back Gary Russell (Minnesota).

This fall, the Scots' top college prospect is 6-foot-5, 210-pound defensive end Robert Bowers, a senior who has verbally committed to Michigan State but will be out until at least midseason recovering from shoulder surgery.

It's this kind of talent that has helped keep the Scots among the top teams in the City League-South Division.

"I think in the South Division there is a lot more parity this year and you always know you have to prepare and be ready to play just about every week," said coach Byron Mattox, who begins his eighth season Friday, Aug. 30, against visiting Watterson. With nine consecutive league titles, Marion-Franklin remains the team to beat in the City-South. But the Scots appear to be closing the gap.

Last year's 7-3 season included a 7-6 loss to the Red Devils in week six. That enabled Marion-Franklin (7-0) to win the league by a game over Walnut Ridge (6-1).

The Scots must replace talent at the skill positions, but Mattox has plenty of size and athleticism up front.

Of the four returning starters on offense, three of them play on the line in three-year starter and junior center Dezjuan Starks (5-10, 300), junior Damon Hardgrove and senior Omar Ndoye. Junior Brian Edwards and freshman William Harris also are expected to contribute on the line, where 2013 graduate Terry Cole was a leader last season.

The group will be blocking for junior running back Jaisean Johnson, who averaged about 10 yards per carry last fall.

"We're more of a blue-collar team this year," Mattox said. "We don't have the strong receivers we had last year and we found ways to get them the ball. You're going to see us run the ball this year and get behind that big line."

Robert Wheelwright had 48 receptions for 874 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

At quarterback, sophomore Malik Harrison (6-4, 185) replaces Marquez Toney, who completed 76 of 129 passes for 1,292 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.

Seniors Brandon Paschal and Tajea Smith and junior Anthony Mckee will be the primary wide receivers. Senior C.J. Lane and junior Jaylen Spotts will see time at tight end.

"Malik is making some really good decisions," Mattox said. "He's very athletic and has some size to him. He pretty much played wide receiver last year and kept coming on strong as the year went on."

Even without Bowers early on, the defense boasts size and speed. There also are two other Division I college prospects in Mckee (LB/SS), who has offers from Illinois and Toledo, and junior tackle Joshua Jordan.

Senior Daveon Miskel (DL), Spotts (LB) and Paschal (DB) all return as starters from last season's group that held opponents to 16.4 points per game.

Others expected to contribute include juniors Wayne Clay (DL), Wayne Russell (LB), Waunyai Ward (DB), Smith (DB) and Kenny Barker (DB) and senior Ronricco Bryant (DL).

"We're really trying to create that depth as we go because we don't want that big drop off when we sub guys in and out," Mattox said.

The Scots have a new defensive coordinator in Steve Ayers, who arrived from Brookhaven.

Mattox was the defensive coordinator at Beechcroft before moving to Walnut Ridge. On Sept. 13 at Beechcroft, the teams will meet for the first time since Mattox left.

"It's going to be interesting playing up there and being on the other sideline," he said. "But I know it will be exciting."