After running the table on their district schedule in 2003, the Jumpers were far from dominant last year with a fourth-place finish and a 5-6 record overall.
With a 3-1 record heading into Friday's district opener at Cumberland, Somerset appears to have returned to form. The Jumpers opened the season with wins over Carroll County (41-19), Pulaski County (42-19) and Warren East (35-7) before falling to Danville 42-26 last week.
"We're a year older and a year stronger. We really only had one senior on both sides of the ball last year," said Somerset coach Jay Cobb. "We knew if we could get them in the weight room and have a good off-season, we could get better."
If not for faltering late, the Jumpers were in position to knock off Danville. Somerset raced to a 26-6 lead and still led going into the fourth quarter before the Admirals took control.
Somerset features several big-play threats on offense, led by senior tailback Scottie Newell, who has rushed for 424 yards on 57 carries and has scored 10 touchdowns. Newell rushed for 299 yards and scored four touchdowns against the Redskins last year in a 42-18 win.
Junior Ross Deaton, a transfer from Pulaski County, has taken over at quarterback and given the Jumpers a threat through the air they lacked last year. Deaton has completed 22 of 56 passes for 475 yards and six touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Ray Norman has 11 catches for 246 yards with two touchdowns.
"We have to bring them to the ground if we can. I haven't figured out how to attack them yet," said Cumberland coach Jon Reynolds with a laugh while watching film Tuesday. "I kind of wish we were one of those big wishbone teams three yards and a cloud of dust. We have to attack them with a ball-control offense, and defensively we have to keep them in front of us and, hopefully, we can get them to the ground."
Cumberland (2-1) suffered its first loss last week, falling to Harlan 42-28 after opening the season with convincing victories over Jenkins (48-14) and Betsy Layne (43-6). The Redskins are led on offense by senior fullback Brad Watts with 194 yards, senior tailback Robert Constant with 172 yards and freshman quarterback Zach Blanton with 280 yards passing.
Defense was the Jumpers' biggest problem last year, specifically tackling, and Cumberland exploited that weakness to gain 262 yards on the ground last year. Cobb has seen improvement in that area but isn't satisfied.
"Our tackling efficiency is not quite where it needs to be, and we have to do a better job against the run," Cobb said. "That's one thing Cumberland does extremely well. Watts had a great game against us last year, and he'll give us some problems if we don't tackle well. Constant broke two runs against us last year, and if he doesn't step out of bounds, he goes to the house. He looks like he's about 20 pounds heavier and has matured and grown up. (Michael Washington) is exceptionally quick.
"It's kind of the same old Cumberland, good athletically with a good mix of size. Jon has done a good job of putting some discipline in that program, and they do a good job with the Wing-T."
Cobb has also been impressed by the play of Blanton, who took over for Drew Allison.
"Their quarterback is a totally different personality than what they had last year," he said. "They may have had a little better thrower last year, but this guy can get out and hurt you out of the pocket and run the football."
While the Redskins hope to avoid starting the season 0-2 in district play, Reynolds says Friday's 7:30 p.m. matchup won't determine his team's postseason fate.
"We're not going to sit there and hinge the season on this game," Reynolds said. "We'll sit there and fight and see where we end up at the end."
Cawood at Middlesboro
The Trojans look for their first win in the toughest place to find a win in Cawood's 40-year history. Cawood's best showing at Middlesboro was a 6-6 tie in 1973.
Speeds remains the calling card for the Jackets, who have rolled past Pineville (40-13) and Lee County, Va., (39-14) the past two weeks after opening the season with losses to Whitley County (27-26) and Lynn Camp (40-30).
"They are a very athletic football team, and they execute their offense pretty well," Cawood coach Frank Smith said. "They've been a little one-sided in the past with either the dive or the quarterback or the pitch. It's about even now, and that indicates to me that they're doing a much better job of reading it than what they've done in the past."
The Jackets feature a balanced attack on offense with running back Casey Earls rushing for 297 yards, followed closely by quarterback Trevor Hoskins with 278 yards and Cornelius Ford with 241. Hoskins has completed 29 of 57 passes for 472 yards passing with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
"We're looking at a situation again defensively where we've got to be very responsibility-oriented," Smith said. "We've got to have all three phases of the option covered up."
Cawood had its first 100-yard rusher of the season last week in a loss to Evarts as junior tailback Mikey Hensley gained 100 yards on 12 carries, but the Trojans could not overcome five fumbles.
"Every time we improve something, we falter somewhere else," Smith said. "We didn't move the football at all against Knox Central. We moved the football last week, but we turned it over. That's an indication of the youth and immaturity of our football team. We can't put it all together."
Middlesboro coach Ken Roark says eliminating mistakes has been the difference for his team the past two weeks.
"We didn't play that bad the first two weeks. We just made a lot of mental mistakes," he said. "We fumbled four times at Whitley and still had a chance to win it going for two with 20 seconds to go. We blew four coverages against Lynn Camp, and they scored four touchdowns with nobody around. We had 487 yards of offense against Lynn Camp and got beat.
"We've done a lot better with mental mistakes, but, of course, freshmen are freshmen. The best thing about them is that they'll be sophomores next year. We're trying to go up."
Even though Cawood is 0-4, Roark calls the Trojans "a dangerous football team."
"I know they're a well-coached team, and Frank does an excellent job on defense especially," he said. "They're hungry for a win, and with the situation of it being the opening district game, it's a dangerous game for us."
Senior lineman Spencer Nolan is expected to see his first action of the season Friday as he battles back from a knee injury. Sophomore lineman D.J. Wilson is also expected to return to the lineup. Both of Middlesboro's starting offensive tackles, sophomores Timmy Daniels and A.J. Jones, are questionable for the game due to injuries.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Harlan at Pendleton County
The Dragons have an early wake-up call Saturday, leaving Harlan at 7 a.m. to make the long trip to Falmouth for a 2 p.m. matchup with Wildcats, a 3A team in only its third season of varsity competition.
"The bus ride will have a major impact on us, I guess," said Harlan coach J.B. Donahue said. "We've talked to our kids this week to prepare themselves for a long bus ride, but it's hard to get used to it. We're going to try to get there early enough to get off the bus and walk around and get our legs back under us a little bit."
Pendleton County had to make the long trip last year, and after keeping the game close for a half were overpowered in the second half in a 35-14 loss.
The Wildcats, who finished 3-5 in 2003 and 5-5 last year, are off to a 2-2 start this season with wins over Paris (33-12) and Bracken County (58-0) followed by losses the last two weeks to Holmes (32-10) and Dayton (32-24).
"We're moving it along, but it's a lot longer process than I thought it was going to be," said coach Tim Carver.
Senior quarterback Mike McNay leads the Pendleton offense, along with senior tailback Derek Amburgey and 6-7, 250-pound senior tight end Patrick Elliott, a transfer from Jackson County.
"They have a good quarterback who throws the ball well and have a big weapon at tight end in Elliott. They throw the ball to him quite often," Donahue said. "They also have a very quick and elusive back. We expect a good tussle."
Junior linebacker Jess Lorenz and senior nose guard Joe Hughes anchor a Pendleton defense that has given up 32 points in each of the past two weeks after allowing only 12 in the first two games combined.
"On defense, we've got to key on stopping Jon Lundy and Teddy Thompson and Casey Belcher," Carver said of the Dragons' quarterback and top two running backs.
Thompson leads the county with 615 yards rushing on 79 carries. Belcher has gained 211 yards on 43 carries, while Lundy has passed for 218 yards.
Donahue hopes the Dragons, now 3-1, can build on the momentum of last week's 42-28 win over Cumberland.
"We've got to continue executing on offense," Donahue said. "Last week was a good offensive week for us. We've got to continue with that offensive success.
"Tackling is also a big key for us. We've got to get better at tackling and be more aggressive."
Saturday's game should mark the first action this season for senior running back/linebacker Nathan Searcy, who was cleared to play this week by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association following a transfer from Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina. Belcher is also expected to see action despite suffering knee and ankle injuries last week.