CHARLESTON -- The Charleston Bluejays open the 2006 football season hosting SEMO Conference Central Division rival Kennett tonight at Marshall Field.
The Bluejays look for a fast start to a season in which they have something to prove following a disappointing finish in 2005.
The Class 3 Kennett Indians, 4-6 in 2005, will have their hands full trying to slow down a crew of talented and experienced skill position athletes as Charleston comes off a 7-3 season.
Three-year letterman Justin Clark steps into the role vacated by graduated Josh Marshall, one of the area's top quarterbacks in '05, and his progress will be key to the Bluejays' success. A solid opener for Clark, an outstanding natural athlete at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, would certainly provide a confidence boost for the first-year quarterback. He'll test the Indians defense as an option runner.
"Justin played well in the jamboree," said head coach Al Marshall, in his second year at the helm. "He can do a lot of things."
Clark has a proven security blanket in reliable three-time 1,000-yard rusher Joseph Watts. The slippery Watts, running behind a big experienced line led by 325-pound senior Brandon Gillespie and last year's top freshman, 240-
pound Garrison Eastman, can strike from any distance from his tailback position and is also an exciting kick returner.
If Kennett places too much emphasis on stopping the ground game, the Bluejays' 6-5 tight end Jamarcus Williams, the team's leading receiver last season, is a formidable target downfield.
Jerrell Quinn, another big, speedy receiver at 6-4, will line up in the slot and must be accounted for.
Marquez Ware gets the start at fullback in place of senior Billy Butler, who must sit out the opening game on a suspension involving an incident in last season's final game.
Matt Medlock, the backup quarterback, starts at split end.
"Basically, what it's going to boil down to is they're a very athletic ballclub and we've got a lot of inexperience with only three or four returnees on both sides of the ball," said Kennett's second-year coach Kirk Welch.
"We don't have quite the athletes they have and we know we'll have to play four full quarters of football, hit 'em every down and just hope to try to wear 'em down."
Kennett, on the short end of a 31-19 score last season, has some offensive weapons of its own.
Senior quarterback Wesley Jackson showcased his playmaking talents in the Dexter Jamboree. The speedy Jackson can get to the edge and put pressure on the defense.
Senior running back Ben Howard also impressed at the jamboree with several quality runs. Alongside Howard in the backfield is big 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore Tevin Hampton.
At wide receiver is, arguably, the Indians best athlete, 6-4, 205-pound Mario McGraw. McGraw is an experienced returning starter who can find holes in the secondary.
"They've got a lot of talented players, especially Howard and Jackson, and some big strong linemen," said Marshall. "They've got size, speed and they're going to be a good opponent."
Kennett fields a huge offensive line averaging 258 pounds, anchored by senior returning starters Payte Harris and Mark Simmons.
In the final analysis, the game's outcome may rest on which team shows up with the strongest defensive effort.
Welch's succinct final comment was "We just want one more point than they get."