MOKANE — When it comes to the 2019 version of the South Callaway Bulldogs football team, the possibilities of potential are preferred to the notion of a rebuilding mode.
South Callaway launches its season tonight with a road game against Lafayette County in Higginsville. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
The Bulldogs are coming off a 2018 season in which they compiled an impressive 10-2 record, punctuated by a loss to eventual Class 2 state champion Blair Oaks in the District 5 title game. South Callaway also made a perfect run to the Eastern Missouri Conference championship.
The Bulldogs bring back five offensive starters this season, but most of their skill players graduated. South Callaway returns seven players who received starting time on the defensive side of the ball.
"We've got a lot of young guys that are having to step in and step up," said Zack Hess, who is starting his fifth year as head coach of the Bulldogs. " It's going to be interesting to see the new guys and how they handle their new roles on the team, and just see what kind of plays they can make and what they can do.
"We go through those transitions and you're naturally going to take a step back before you make progress and make strides forward. I really feel like the group that we have now is working really hard to make those strides really quickly."
The South Callaway offense will be starting fresh at quarterback. Senior Cole Shoemaker replaces Peyton Leeper, the Bulldogs' do-it-all dynamo in 2018.
Leeper was 87-of-169 passing (51 percent) for 1,475 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He topped South Callaway in rushing with 997 yards and 19 scores.
Hess said the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Shoemaker is settling in nicely and showing a steady presence in steering the offense.
"From the quarterback position, that standpoint, I think he has a really good grasp of our offense and what we're trying to do," Hess said. "So much so that coach (offensive coordinator Tucker) Bartley has given him some freedom at the line of scrimmage to adjust play calls and things like that.
"There's a lot of trust that's been developed there between the offensive coaches and the quarterback. I think that's good for us in putting our offense in good positions to make plays."
Senior running back Devin Borghardt (5-10, 170) returns after being part of the rotation in the Bulldogs' backfield last season. Borghardt gained 278 yards and scored three touchdowns on 64 carries, while adding nine catches for 120 yards and a score.
Borghardt will be joined by fellow senior running back Nick Mealy (6-2, 190).
"Devin's put on a little bit of weight now, so I feel better about him running in the box or between the tackles," Hess said. "Nick Mealy's always been kind of a bigger kid, but both of those guys run the ball really hard.
"I think Nick's probably more of a straight-ahead guy. Devin's going to make a cut and try to make you miss, and he's got a little burst to him."
South Callaway's running game took a hit when junior running back Hayden Vaught injured his knee during a summer camp in Branson. Hess is hoping to have Vaught back at some point this season.
Shoemaker's job when putting the ball in the air will be made easier by the return of senior tight end Caleb Hall, the Bulldogs' leading receiver in 2018. The 6-6, 220-pound Hall finished with 38 catches for 496 yards and two TDs.
"(Caleb) is big, tall and can catch the ball, and runs hard after he catches it," Hess said.
Other options include senior wide receiver Brandon Stoker (6-2, 175) and sophomore tight end Jasper Rees (6-2, 205). South Callaway will be impacted by the loss of junior wide receiver Hunter Martin-Hay, who will miss the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Most of the Bulldogs' offensive experience comes up front with the return of three starting linemen. Juniors John Hecktor (6-1, 175) and Tyler Potter (6-1, 200) hold down the tackle positions, while junior Tanner Vaughan (5-10, 220) is back at center.
South Callaway's two guards will be juniors Kyle Wetherell (6-4, 235) and Cobi Wilson (6-4, 220).
Hecktor and Potter will also start at the end spots on the Bulldogs' defensive line. Vaughan and Wetherell will set up on the inside at the tackle positions.
South Callaway's linebacker corps will consist of Shoemaker and Hall on the outside, and Nick Mealy and his younger brother, sophomore Brendon Mealy (6-2, 170), on the inside.
The Bulldogs' secondary will be comprised of Stoker and senior Noah Reece (6-2, 165) at the cornerback positions and Borghardt at safety
South Callaway will clash tonight with a Lafayette County squad that went 6-5 in 2018, including a 41-20 victory against the Bulldogs in the season opener in Mokane. The Huskers were the Class 2 state runners-up in 2017.
"I talked with (Lafayette County) coach (Steve) Cook the other day and was just talking about exchanging (game) film and things like that, and I think he's really excited about his team," Hess said. "He's made some comments about them potentially making a (playoff) run this year.
"That's exciting to get to play a high-quality opponent in Week 1. That's going to be a tough test for us on the road, especially with a young team and just trying to figure everything out. We'll see exactly where we're at, and good or bad, we'll learn from it and come back Week 2 and try to get better."
Notes: South Callaway is moving down from Class 2 to Class 1 this season and received 13 votes in the Missouri Media Rankings preseason poll released Tuesday night. The Bulldogs will be part of District 6, along with Brentwood, Harrisburg, Louisiana, Mark Twain, Paris, South Shelby and Westran.
"We have not talked a lot about changing classifications with our players," Hess said. "We are excited to get started with our regular-season schedule and a tough conference schedule.
"Having said that, we are looking forward to the opportunity of playing new and unfamiliar opponents in district play this year."