Guided by new head coach Justin Groves, the Benton Rangers open their 2018 season Friday at Carterville.
The Rangers enter the season as a young, inexperienced and untested squad, having graduated over 15 seniors from last year's 5-4 squad under Bob Pankey.
"We are excited about the start of the season," Groves said Monday. "By this time you're always tired of hitting each other and you are ready to go out and play against someone else. This week of preparation will determine the outcome, but we built a good foundation in the summer and I feel like we will be ready Friday night."
Groves has indicated the strength of his team will be on the offensive line, where three seniors returns, including Austin Crawford, Daniel Richardson and center Carston Sanders. Junior Tyler Butler will also return to both the offensive and defensive lines.
Protecting junior quarterback Grant Gordon will be a key component in how successful the Rangers will be offensively.
"I think the five we put on the field will be able to protect the quarterback when we throw the ball, but more importantly, we expect them to get some movement up front allowing us to run the ball."
Senior Andrew Dunn and sophomore Peyton Swigonski are expected to join Gordon in the backfield.
Defensively, the Rangers will be led by senior Joey Craig, who is expected to move from a defensive safety to linebacker.
"We're looking at a young defense with some juniors up front that will give us some experience for next year. Our linebacking corps is going to be two sophomores, a senior and junior. We're developing our secondary every day," Groves said.
Under coach Dennis Drust, the Lions finished 7-3 a year ago and qualified for the postseason Class 4A playoffs. In 16 seasons, Drust has never had a losing season. He has a .769 winning percentage.
"We don't know a whole lot (about Carterville), just that they have some speed, and obviously, well-coached. We are expecting them to try and run the ball and control the line of scrimmage. There is a lot of pressure on our offensive and defensive lines to not let that happen," Groves said.
He added getting off to a good start is important in setting the table for the balance of the season.
"It sets the tone, no doubt. Starting out with a win in week one makes all the rest of our goals for the season much more attainable."
Kickoff on Carterville's synthetic surface is set for 7 p.m.