Over the last six years under coach Michael Salmons, Raceland hasn’t shied away from playing the best of the best.
The Rams have epitomized the old sports cliché “to be the best, you have to beat the best,” and this year’s slate of games is no different.
Raceland will host Pikeville, Ashland, Paintsville and Russell. The Rams will also face East Jessamine and Lawrence County.
“Since I’ve been head coach, we’ve made no issues about it: our goals are to be playing on the last day and hoist a big trophy down there at Kroger Field,” Salmons said. “We feel like in order to do that, you’ve got to challenge yourself throughout the season.”
Offense will look drastically different for the Rams in the 2020 campaign, coping with the graduation of playmakers Ethan Cox and Gunnur Lewis.
The tandem combined for 28 total touchdowns last season. Lewis was also the team’s leading tackler.
“Replacing those guys will be over time, and replacing those guys will be by committee,” Salmons said. “It will take multiple players producing to maybe get to the level of what one of those guys did.”
One positive for Raceland is the return of quarterback Jacob Heighton. Heighton was injured in the Rams’ second game of the season against Russell, returning for district play.
Heighton has made major strides in many facets of his game, his coach said, namely the mental area that comes with being a quarterback since becoming the starter two years ago.
“As a sophomore, he was trying to figure it out and make his way. In 2020, he’s leading the way,” Salmons said.
Conner Hughes replaced Heighton and excelled (13 touchdowns, three interceptions) but breaking in new players at running back made offensive success difficult at times in 2019.
Seven Raceland players rushed for 99 yards or more, but none fully established himself at running back.
“We’re a spread team that wants to identify with being able to run the football,” Salmons said. “I think last year, that caused us some trouble at times, not being able to identify with running the ball, which was really complicated by the fact that we lost our quarterback.”
Salmons is hoping a scrappy offensive line and a plethora of capable running backs can help revamp the rushing attack.
“We know to get to where we want to go, to get to where we’ve been, we’ve got to be able to run the ball more consistently and more effectively, and when everyone knows it’s a run down,” Salmons said.
Michael Meade is ready for his time to showcase his skills in his final year.
“He’s a senior, so it’s kind of time for him to take that next step in his game,” Salmons said.
Speedy Landyn Newman will also get carries, as will Jaxon Heighton and Jules Farrow, among others.
Hunter Correll and Will Nichols will play an H-back type of role, looking to pave the way for Rams runners.
Outside at receiver, Raceland must replace multiple big-time players, including Cox, Lewis and Jacob Wallace.
Hughes will move from quarterback to receiver, and Salmons is hoping his experience as the Rams gunslinger last year will pay dividends.
Nicholas Bowling, Parker Gallion and Noah Reeves have also awaited their chance to become playmakers on Friday nights, and they’ll have ample opportunity this year.
Up front on the offensive line, Raceland is looking for positive change.
“I think our offensive line is one area of our team that we’ve got to be better at in 2020 to achieve our goals,” Salmons said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys on the offensive line that are a little bit older and have got some experience.”
Look for Caleb Bradley, Drew Burke, Clay Coldiron, Will Farley, Toby Thacker and Reese Winters as standouts on the line of scrimmage.
Defensively, Raceland is ready to continue its tradition of stout play. The Rams allowed just 16 points per game, and their 193 total points allowed was sixth-fewest in Class A.
The defensive line looks to enjoy some depth this year.
“There’s about five or six guys trying to fight for time, and we hope that can provide us with some depth that in the past we just didn’t have,” Salmons said.
Grant Bailey “has stepped up in the preseason and been good for us on the defensive line,” and Nichols will also play a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role, the coach said. Coldiron is another name Salmons has high expectations for.
At linebacker, the Rams seem to be set in stone in what could be their most solid position group defensively.
“We feel like our linebackers have got to lead the way for us,” Salmons said. “Those are some of our hardest-working kids and some of our strongest kids on the team.”
Correll and Melvin will man the inside linebacker spots, and Bowling and Nichols will be on the outside of Raceland’s 3-4 scheme.
The Rams have options in the secondary, again looking to replace the productivity of Cox and Lewis, who combined for eight interceptions.
Salmons is excited for JD Melvin and Reeves to break out.
Raceland will also rotate Meade and Newman at safety and has a variety of choices at cornerback with Gallion, Hughes, Farrow and Trevor Thornsberry all vying for time.
On special teams, Peyton Ison returns as placekicker. The Rams are still a work in progress at punter, Salmons said.