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Published 5:44 am Wednesday, August 8, 2007

By BY BRUCE HIXON – SPORTS EDITOR
As the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles football team kicked off official practice Monday, here are 10 questions to ponder about the upcoming 2007 season.
1. Which will be the game of the season? Since the Blue Eagles got a 10-year monkey off their back last year when they beat T.R. Miller, let's shift it to a Sept. 21 trip to Thomasville.
Thomasville was the Class 4A state runner-up last year and was ranked second in the state in the preseason poll. Thomasville is the only school from Class 4A Region 1 ranked in the preseason poll.
Thomasville, T.R. Miller and W.S. Neal all tied for first place in Region 1 last season after the standings were adjusted when Escambia County forfeited four region wins.
2. Which game is the biggest trap?
Even though Hillcrest is coming off an 0-10 season on the field last year, W.S. Neal's Oct. 12 trip to Evergreen could be a bit tricky.
The contest is W.S. Neal's only road game in its last six contests and precedes what figures to be two key region games against Jackson and T.R. Miller.
Hillcrest has a lot of size up front, a lot of speed at the skill spots and perhaps most important a year's experience for a young team.
3. Will a favorable schedule help?
W.S. Neal will play six of its 10 games at home. The Blue Eagles picked up an extra home game when they bought out their regular season finale against Calhoun.
Three of W.S. Neal's four road games are against teams that made the playoffs last year (Daleville, Escambia County and Thomasville) although W.S. Neal plays just two teams (Thomasville and T.R. Miller) that finished last season with winning records.
4. Which area should be the strongest?
It should be the offensive line, which a year ago was arguably W.S. Neal's biggest question mark.
While the loss of tackle Jared Cooper, who was the state's Lineman of the Year last year is huge, the Blue Eagles return most of their other offensive line pieces. Senior Michael Boyd is back at center, while senior Jonathan Benjamin and Thomas Emmons saw time at guard. Senior Adam York is a returning starter at tackle.
5. Who will replace Nykeem Barton and Justin Smith in the backfield?
Barton and Smith combined for 2,025 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns and another 376 yards and six touchdowns through 29 receptions last season.
While it will be tough for another duo to match those numbers, W.S. Neal hopes to get that production by the committee of seniors Louis Ray Nelson and Akeem Green, juniors Nate Sheffield and Wayne Mitchell and sophomore Jason Bailey. Those five players combined for 382 yards last season, most of which came in back-up duty.
6. Who has the biggest shoes to fill?
It would be easy to say whoever plays left tackle after the departure of Jared Cooper, but junior quarterback Taylor Cash also has a big set of shoes to fill after the departure of Marquis Barksdale. Barksdale threw for 1,517 yards last season with 20 touchdowns and added another 437 yards and seven scores on the ground.
7. Who will anchor the defense?
While one player does not make a defense, junior tackle Jamar Travis is a two-year starter at that spot and is already starting to draw attention from the next level.
8. What is the most unsettled spot on defense?
It is arguably defensive end although the situation is not as unsettled as it once was. Junior Derrick Fantroy started last season at end, but was moved to tackle during the offseason. Fantroy has now been moved back to end. York, who has no experience on defense, is the other projected starter at end.
9. Who will catch the ball?
W.S. Neal has to pretty much completely rebuild its receiving corps. Sophomores Jeremy Nicholson and Jeremy Alexander along with juniors Karish Jones and junior Nathan Frazier are the top receiver candidates. They combined to make two catches for 26 yards last season.
10. What is the overall outlook?
A year ago the Blue Eagles strung together a stretch of six straight games where they scored 40 or more points and averaged 36.8 points a game for the season. With new skill players at virtually every position, it will be tough for W.S. Neal to approach that kind of production this season.
A less potent offense will put a lot more pressure on the defense, which gave up just under 19 points a game last season even with two shutouts to its credit. If the defense can cut that figure down, it will relieve some of the offensive burden.
If all that happens, W.S. Neal has a chance to make a run at a playoff berth.