A massive, successful senior class has moved on from South Aiken High School, but this football season isn't being treated as a rebuild.
Instead, the T-Breds are talking about reloading.
"Our expectations are always gonna stay the same," said South Aiken head coach Chris Hamilton. "We graduated 26 seniors last year, but it's like I tell the guys all the time – we're not gonna use that as an excuse. We've set a standard here at South Aiken, and we're gonna try to live up to that."
There's youth and first-year starters all over the place, but the T-Breds have strong veteran presence on both the offensive and defensive lines. That's where Hamilton believes a winner is built.
Those new starters aren't fresh to the field, though. They've gotten their chances to play over the last couple of years, especially in late-game situations with South Aiken holding a comfortable lead.
Jesse Sanders has made the move from wide receiver to quarterback, though E.J. Hickson isn't making it easy for Sanders to win that position battle.
South Aiken will remain a run-first team, and the T-Breds' ability to move the ball on the ground will set up the passing game. And if they're moving the ball well, it's because they're blocking well. Sanders is an effective rushing threat, and he has chemistry with his linemen.
The running back position will look different this year without Chris Roberts, who racked up more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and scored 49 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Hamilton has a trio to take a shot at it, and Nequel Ryans has emerged as a potential impact player.
At 5-foot-4 and 156 pounds, Ryans can't play the same bruising style as the 5-10, 210-pound Roberts. But that's not a knock on Ryans – as Hamilton pointed out, there's some areas where he may be even better.
"You're not gonna find a guy like (Roberts), that you say you're gonna replace," Hamilton said. "But what you do is you find the guy and you tell him not to be Chris Roberts – be him."
It's the defensive line's turn to lead the defense after years of being able to lean on leaders at linebacker and in the defensive backfield. Zaire Harrison and Desmond Lawrence are longtime starters up front, and they're a big part of what should be the strength of the defense.
Aaron Mazzell and Braden Briatico could make an early impact at linebacker. Members of the basketball team have come aboard and could make significant contributions, like Damar Johnson in the secondary.
The T-Breds will have completely revamped special teams, and they may have three different new kickers splitting kickoff, punting and field goal duties. Hamilton is also looking for the T-Breds' next big-play return specialist.
The schedule starts with a visit from former South Aiken head coach Dan Pippin and Greenwood. Realignment brings two changes to the schedule – Brookland-Cayce is now a region opponent, and the league has moved to the Lower State and is now Region 5-AAAA. The latter means a different road through the playoffs for a team that has no plans on just rebuilding.
"That's kind of our mentality. That's the expectation," Hamilton said. "Like I've always told you as long as I'm here, our four goals are going to be win the opener, win the county, win the region, win state. That's always gonna be, as long as I'm here."