The 2018 Kentucky high school football season kicks off on Aug. 17, which means “ranking season” is officially in full swing.
Here are the preseason top 10 teams in Class 4A — the third-largest football-playing classification under the Kentucky High School Athletic Association — as voted on by coaches in the division.
1. Johnson Central
Head coach: Jim Matney (15th season)
Last year: 12-3, lost in Class 4A championship
Quick look: The Golden Eagles finished three points ahead of Franklin-Simpson — which defeated them in last year’s finals — for the preseason No. 1 spot, effectively making them 1A to the Wildcats’ 1B. The teams have split championship bouts each of the past two seasons, so perhaps a 2018 rubber match is in order?
Joe Jackson was a 2,000-yard rusher as a sophomore but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Johnson Central’s opener last year. He’s back and expected to re-emerge as a senior. Ryley Preece, who quarterbacked the 2016 title team, is a senior as well. Junior linebacker Devin Johnson (6-feet, 200 pounds) has a scholarship offer from Morehead State and has taken unofficial visits to UK and Tennessee, among others. Evan Adkins, a senior linebacker, will look to lead the Golden Eagles’ defense back to form; it allowed eight points per game in 2016 but double that last season.
Head coach: Doug Preston (seventh season)
Last year: 12-3, won Class 4A championship
Quick look: While many Kentucky champions set their schedule on fire all season long, Franklin-Simpson reminded us last season that titles are played for in December, not September. The Wildcats started 2-3 in 2017, including a 55-23 shellacking courtesy of Elizabethtown at home to open the year. They figured it out, winning 10 straight games to end the year and redeeming themselves against Johnson Central after a championship defeat the year before. Franklin-Simpson has to like its chances to make a third straight title-game appearance; it brings back its top two rushers, seniors Tre Bass (1,457 yards, 14 TDs) and Carlos McKinney (1,153 yards, 15 TDs) from a unit that produced more than 5,000 yards on the ground. Lineman Jack Randolph, a 6-3, 290-pound senior who has committed to Louisville, will keep producing plenty of holes for the duo and anyone else who wants to run through ’em.
3. Wayne County
Head coach: Shawn Thompson (15th season)
Last year: 12-2, lost in Class 4A semifinals
Quick look: No program has suffered more from Johnson Central’s ascension than have the Cardinals, whose season the Golden Eagles ended in the penultimate game each of the past three years. Wayne County has won at least one playoff game each season since 2011 and has earned the respect of its peers despite losing its leading rusher, German Ruiz, and All-State selection Lorenzo Linsey, a three-year starter at quarterback who ended up at Georgetown University. Aubrey Weaver, a 6-1 receiver who scored 12 TDs and went over 1,000 yards last year, will headline the receiving corps — unless he’s captaining the offense from under center.
Head coach: Jerry Lucas (ninth season)
Last year: 11-3, lost in Class 4A semifinals
Quick look: Offensive line play will be a major difference-maker for the Titans, who until last year hadn’t advanced past round two since winning their program’s first title in 2013. Miami (Ohio) commit Nathan Jacobs, a 6-5, 315-pound hulk who’s the two-time defending discus champ in Class 2A, leads a quintet of senior linemen — Corey Diaz (6-7, 330), Dane Kidwell (6-2, 270), Mile Megibben (6-2, 215) and Gavin Didier (6-2, 240) — that’ll make life easy for running backs Jacoby Evans and AJ Bradford, as well as sophomore quarterback Joe Lucas, who’s stepping into the starting role. Bradford, DJ Webb and Chi Rankin make up a linebacker unit that Lucas is excited about.
5. Ashland Blazer
Head coach: Tony Love (sixth season)
Last year: 10-3, lost in Class 4A quarterfinals
Quick look: The Tomcats squeezed by Johnson Central in the regular season to secure home-field advantage in an inevitable rematch but couldn’t make good on that advantage. Dual-threat quarterback Braxton Ratliff — a two-time area player of the year who’s within sight of several Ashland records — has offers to play for Jacksonville University and Centre College. He rushed for 762 yards and 15 TDs and threw for 1,745 yards and 22 scores with only six interceptions in 2017. Junior offensive lineman John Stone (6-3, 270) is a two-year starter who’s attracted interest from UK, Marshall and Ohio University. Marshall, Ohio and Western Michigan are keeping tabs on Ryan Bryant, a 6-5, 270-pound defensive end and tight end.
6. Rockcastle County
Head coach: Scott Parkey
Last year: 8-4, lost in Class 4A second round
Quick look: Jaden Payne, who rushed for 17 TDs and more than 1,400 yards last season, returns as a senior and could challenge for district Player of the Year honors. The Rockets, still searching for a finals trip since dropping back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, also bring back three defensive ends with experience on offense in Jeremiah Blevins, Sam Philbeck and Blaine Rumsey.
Head coach: Craig Clayton (second year)
Last year: 6-7, lost in Class 4A quarterfinals
Quick look: A “down year” by Hoptown standards still ended with a shot for a region title, and the Tigers might have played for a state championship had Franklin-Simpson not ended a late-season heater with a 20-point comeback. Javier Bland threw for 22 TDs and more than 2,100 yards as a sophomore starter at quarterback, experience that should be pivotal for the Tigers this year and next. Several defensive backs graduated but Jevon Leavell, who came up with two interceptions in 11 games as a sophomore, should see his number called more.
8. Knox Central
Head coach: Fred Hoskins (second year)
Last year: 8-4, lost in Class 4A second round
Quick look: Nick Martin set school records for receiving yards (792) and receptions (52) in a single season and a single-game record with 225 yards against Corbin last year. Austin Peay and UT-Chattanooga have offered the 6-6, 205-pound standout, who will again have all-around threat Blevin Campbell and rising star Brady Worley tossing him the ball this season. Two-way lineman Dylan Hoskins (6-4, 278 pounds) started all 12 games as a freshman at left tackle, which bodes well for his personal future and that of the program. Tucker Holland forced 13 turnovers and averaged 11 tackles per game as a junior in 2017.
9. Mercer County
Head coach: David Buchanan (fourth season)
Last year: 7-6, lost in Class 4A quarterfinals
Quick look: The Titans’ record last season was nothing to write home about but they were a touchdown shy of qualifying for the state semifinals. There’s room for guys to step up in just about every facet: Mercer County graduated all-state selection Trevon Faulkner (a Division I-caliber defensive back who won Mr. Basketball), starting quarterback (Gunnar Gillis), leading rusher (Jackson Lewis) and its top three receivers (Aaron Johnson, Faulkner and Lewis). Junior Kaelin Drakeford (6-4, 175) didn’t take a snap at quarterback last year but is listed as an athlete who could end up in that role. Bryce Yeast, who rushed for a little more than 200 yards last year, will be expected to produce more as a junior. Senior linebacker Jamo Sherrow (6-1, 205) and junior defensive end Darrian Baker (6-4, 230) give the Titans some key experience on that side.
10. Logan County
Head coach: Todd Adler (third season)
Last year: 11-1, lost in Class 4A second round
Quick look: Logan County’s unbeaten run in the regular season transformed the program into one of the state’s darlings last year; it had lost 33 straight games before snapping that streak in 2016. No longer a doormat, the Cougars are expected to finish among the upper echelon this season as a class of 20 seniors looks to go further. Juniors Gary Hardy (Logan County’s leading rusher with nearly 1,300 yards as a sophomore) and Tyler Ezell (who threw for 19 TDs and 1,611 yards last year) hope to help their elders.
Others receiving votes
(Listed with total points received)
Franklin County 25, Taylor County 20, Scott 16, John Hardin 11, Western 8, Shelby County 6, Allen County-Scottsville 5, Bourbon County 5, Madisonville 5, Western 4, Greenup County 2, Warren East 1, West Jessamine 1.
Survey method: Every Class 4A coach was given the opportunity to participate in Kentucky.com’s annual survey, which was emailed to their address listed on KHSAA.org. Multiple attempts were made to contact every coach.
Schools that returned surveys: Ashland Blazer, Breckinridge County, Collins, East Jessamine, Franklin County, Harrison County, Johnson Central, Knox Central, Mason County, Mercer County, Moore, Rowan County, Scott, Shelby County, Spencer County, Warren Central, West Jessamine.