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 5A — the second-largest football-playing classification under the Kentucky High School Athletic Association — as voted on by coaches in the division.
1. Covington Catholic
Head coach: Eddie Eviston (fourth season)
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Last year: 15-0, won the Class 5A championship
Quick look: Gone are AJ Mayer, a Mr. Football candidate who quarterbacked last year’s unbeaten squad, and seven other starters (several that played both ways) but the cupboard isn’t bare for the defending champs. Senior Jack Coldiron, a 6-foot-5 wide receiver and linebacker, will join Mayer and Kameron Butler at Miami (Ohio) after his last high school season. Junior Michael Mayer, AJ’s brother who plays tight end and linebacker, is also 6-5 and has committed to Notre Dame. The Colonels also boast a strong stable of returning linemen, including seven seniors led by Carter Black, a 6-3, 295-pound beast.
How much CovCath gets from the quarterback position could go a long way toward deciding its repeatability. Tyler Reusch, a senior who led the junior varsity to a 7-1 record last season, on paper seems like the heir apparent, but sophomore Caleb Jacob might end up getting a shot. Whoever’s in the captain’s chair will benefit from the presence of Casey McGinness, who as a junior last season rushed for 1,418 yards and 22 TDs.
2. Bowling Green
Head coach: Mark Spader (first season)
Last year: 10-3, lost in Class 5A quarterfinals
Quick look: New coach, old expectations. Spader, who has coached under former Purples head coach Kevin Wallace since 2004, inherited a program that saw its two-year title streak end last season but is still right in the thick of things. Vito Tisdale, a 6-1 junior who has offers from UK, Louisville, Oklahoma, Purdue and Tennessee, is the fifth-ranked safety in the nation and will be called upon more in the offensive backfield this season (he was Bowling Green’s second-leading rusher and scored 10 TDs last year). A trio of linebackers — Ethan Klein, Miles Smith and Evan Spader — combined for more than 200 tackles last season and are back to wreak more havoc. Beau Buchanan looks to continue being one of the state’s most efficient quarterbacks; he was 168-of-249 last season for 25 TDs and nearly 2,300 yards while tossing just three interceptions.
3. South Warren
Head coach: Brandon Smith (sixth season)
Last year: 11-3, lost in Class 5A semifinals
Quick look: The Spartans’ first season in Class 5A was humming along nicely until it ran into the CovCath wrecking ball. Their second turn in the division could be more fruitful; they return multiple starters with experience in key positions, none more heralded than Notre Dame commit Jacob Lacey (a 6-2, 285-pound defensive lineman). Senior Gavin Spurrier — a 6-3 quarterback and the grandson of college football coaching great Steve Spurrier — threw for 2,509 yards and 21 TDs last season, his first as a starter. He’ll get to continue throwing to Clayton Bush, a 6-foot receiver who has committed to WKU and caught seven of those TDs in 2017. Pete Cross and Tre Teague, who between them accounted for more than 200 tackles last season, are seniors.
4. Madison Southern
Head coach: Jon Clark (eighth season)
Last year: 11-4, lost in Class 5A championship
Quick look: Expecting Madison Southern to recede following its best season in program history? Don’t. The Eagles bring back eight starters on offense and five on defense. Several of them are juniors, including Dane Jackson, a 6-1, 270-pound offensive guard who’s starting for the third straight season (he’s also the brother of UK lineman Drake Jackson). Center Tyson Isaacs, a 260-pound center, is also a three-year starter on the line. Jordan Casteel — who had a Class 5A-best 11 interceptions — is back in the defensive backfield and will see time at wide receiver as a senior, too. The Eagles lost quarterback Landen Stacy and do-it-all stud Carter Smith — who together accounted for nearly 2,500 of Madison Southern’s 3,400 rushing yards — so replacing that production will be crucial.
Head coach: Brian Weinrich (fifth season)
Last year: 6-6, lost in Class 5A second round
Quick look: This ranking indicates a belief that the Bluebirds — who since winning the Class 4A championship in 2014 have underwhelmed for a program that’s won 23 titles (second-most in state history) — are ready to re-enter the title conversation. Grady Cramer, a 6-4 quarterback who started in Highlands’ two playoff games, will get his first full season in the role. Cooper Schwalbach, rushed for 882 yards and 17 TDs last season and is back for one last go-around. Junior linebacker/defensive back Brycen Huddleston has earned varsity playing time since his freshman year, and Weinrich believes he’s one of the best players in the state.
6. South Oldham
Head coach: Jaime Reed (ninth season)
Last year: 10-2, lost in Class 5A second round
Quick look: A 10-game win streak was easily snuffed by Covington Catholic in round two, but other than that performance the Dragons had a 2017 worth fondly recalling. Drew Zaubi, a multi-year starter at quarterback, has walked on at Louisville but South Oldham brings back junior Keaton Martin (its leading rusher last year with 1,258 yards and 17 TDs) and leading receiver Ethan Bednarczyk, also a junior. The Dragons’ three leaders in tackles — Mason Bowman, Tyrelle Love and Jack Harold — also return.
Head coach: Larry French (fifth season)
Last year: 10-3, lost in Class 5A quarterfinals
Quick look: JP Vaught, one of the fastest players in the state (he has two track-and-field titles to prove it), was 70 yards shy of a 1,000-yard receiving season and is poised to hit that mark as he and quarterback Drew Sawyers both return as seniors; Sawyers was the team’s second leading rusher with 1,001 yards and nine TDs. Tackles Mason Heath (6-3, 295) and Josh Williams (6-0, 275) anchor a formidable line that’ll help the team replicate those efforts. Austin Barnes, a 5-11 linebacker, had more than 100 tackles as a sophomore in 2017.
8. Harlan County
Head coach: Eddie Creech (fifth season)
Last year: 8-6, lost in Class 5A semifinals
Quick look: The Black Bears recovered from a 3-5 start to get to within a touchdown of making their first finals trip last season. Harlan County’s second decade as a program will begin in Class 5A before it drops to 4A next season, and in many ways this year could end up being preparation for next. Eight starters are gone from last year’s defense, and senior quarterback Colby Cochran suffered what might be a season-ending knee injury in the spring; junior Jay Harris, the junior varsity starter last year, is the probable replacement.
9. Christian County
Head coach: Steve Lovelace (12th season)
Last year: 11-1, lost in Class 5A second round
Quick look: Antonio Abren, a 6-2, 200-pound linebacker returning from an injury-shortened season, headlines a Colonels squad that looks to replace experience across the board. Kolbe Langhi, a four-year starter at quarterback, graduated along with leading receiver JaQuon Long (the Colonels’ second-leading receiver Ellis Dunn, transferred to Hopkinsville). Christian County does return Jadonavin McNeil, a 6-1 fullback who as a junior accounted for nearly half of its rushing yardage.
10. Pulaski County
Head coach: John Hines (20th season)
Last year: 4-7, lost in Class 5A first round
Quick look: One of the state’s longest-tenured head coaches briefly made a leap to the college ranks before changing his mind less than a month later. He comes back to a team that expects to rebound from a subpar season. Wiley Cain, who quarterbacked the Maroons to a state finals appearance in 2016, will start for the third straight season and for the third straight season will get to throw to Jake Sloan, a 6-3 junior receiver who’s chasing the records set by former Maroons star Jake Johnson. Tristan Cox, a 6-4 running back and linebacker, has been offered by UK and is just a sophomore. Linebacker Konner Hargis, a junior, has started since he was a freshman.
Others receiving votes
(Listed with total points received)
Owensboro 30, Anderson County 14, Fern Creek 11, Graves County 7, Montgomery County 6, North Laurel 4, South Laurel 2, Southern 2, Lincoln County 1.
Survey method: Every Class 5A 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: Anderson County, Bowling Green, Christian County, Covington Catholic, Fern Creek, Highlands, Lincoln County, Madison Southern, Marshall County, Montgomery County, Nelson County, Oldham County, Pulaski County, South Warren, Southwestern.