It's inevitable that with a new football coach comes a lot of change within a program.

That's true, to an extent, for Fox Creek.

There's change in key places, most notably with new head coach LaFayette Stewart plus the departure of do-everything quarterback Cam Mitchem, but there's one constant that's remained in place to to help ease the transition from the Derrick Quinn era to Stewart's.

That's the veteran leaders that are still on the roster, and that's what has Stewart optimistic despite a brutal schedule.

"I'm excited about this new group. We have a gumbo pot mix of seniors, juniors, sophomores as well as some freshmen who will contribute moving forward," Stewart said. "I'm excited about the way that they've worked and really been receptive to the new way, new day at Fox Creek football."

The Predators came out of the gates hot last year, winning their first three games before running into the Region 2-AA buzz saw. Their playoff hopes ended when they lost to Silver Bluff in a battle for the final postseason spot, bringing their season to its earliest end since 2013.

Last year's team was buoyed by an experienced defense, Mitchem's play-making stylings and the emergence of a game-breaking talent in Jatonious Butler. Now it's Butler's turn to take over the offense.

"Definitely the offense will go through Mr. Jatonious Butler," Stewart said. "Of course, leading that charge up front, everything starts with that and another captain in Blake Shealy. I feel great about those two offensively, leading just the way that CJ (Tillman) will be doing defensively."

Tillman's back to anchor the defensive line after recording 81 tackles and 12 tackles for loss last year as a junior. His leadership will be especially important to a Fox Creek team that graduated seven of its top eight tacklers from a year ago.

"Well, I'm excited the way that they are just working. That's one thing that's sticking out to me," said Stewart. "We're tweaking some things and adjusting some things, but the core principles and the core guys are remaining the same. I'm excited about the continuity."

Fox Creek opens the regular season with a week off, followed by home games against Wagener-Salley and C.A. Johnson. Road games at McCormick and Columbia follow, then the non-region schedule finishes up with a home game after Crescent.

After that, the Region 2-AA gauntlet begins, and that's where that leadership could pay off in a return to the postseason.

"It has been priceless to have leaders who never question the plan, how much work has to be done, to create a championship culture," said Stewart, who's been a part of title teams at North Augusta. "Because that's what we are building and working toward every day with our mantra moving forward, RTI, being relentless, tough and intelligent in everything that we do.

"That takes a lot of work day in and day out, a lot of accountability and responsibility, not just coming from the ball coach but coming from the leaders ... they're humble. They're ready to win, and they're putting in the work to do so."

Kyle Dawson covers sports for the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter @ItsKyleDawson.