Central-Phenix City vs. Thompson 7A State Championship

Central's Eddie Williams Jr. (5) catches a pass for a touchdown in the second half. Central vs Thompson on Wednesday, Dec. 5 in Auburn, Ala.

Tonight, the Central-Phenix City Red Devils begin 2019 the same way they ended 2018: by playing in the most anticipated game in Alabama.

The Red Devils will hit the ground running this fall by taking on Hoover at 7 p.m. in Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl. The game is the second of the 2019 AHSAA Kickoff Classic, which began Thursday with Carver-Montgomery facing Jeff Davis.

Central enters the game as the No. 1 team in Class 7A, per the ASWA’s poll. Hoover is No.  2.

Tonight’s contest features a showdown we might see again come the postseason. Central enters after a 14-0 season and its first state championship since 1993. Hoover, meanwhile, went 9-4 and lost by three in the semifinals to Thompson, the team the Red Devils thrashed in the title game.

Central head coach Jamey DuBose said the offseason mantra was “putting the rings away” to emphasize the importance of going back to work. Based on what he saw this spring and summer, his players accepted the message.

“I think we've done what we need to do. The guys have been working hard. I think they're just ready to hit someone else and go against someone else,” DuBose said. “I'm anxious to see how we'll respond. The new kids who did not start for us last year but played, I want to see how they're going to respond to the big setting and to being moved up as a starter. A lot of questions are going to be answered Friday night, and it's the same for Hoover.”

The Red Devils graduated a great deal of talent from its title team, including at quarterback. LSU signee Peter Parrish will be replaced by Tucker Melton, the 6-foot-2 Bowling Green commit. Melton played throughout Central’s 2018 season and ended his junior season with 1,076 passing yards and 10 touchdowns.

DuBose had high expectations for Melton in his first summer as the guy, and Melton passed all the tests from his head coach.

“He's handled it like I thought he would. He's a very mature kid who goes about his business and does his job. He tries to motivate others and tries to lead by example,” DuBose said. “He's been in these games. I'm not expecting to see anything different from him. He's played in big moments. He's played as a starter, and he's played with the game on the line.”

Melton has no shortage of talent to throw the ball to starting tonight. In addition to four-star recruit E.J. Williams, DuBose pointed to Jackson Meeks, Peter Jakes, TJ Woods and Devin Johnson as receivers who have stood out this summer.

One of DuBose’s primary concerns this offseason was Central’s secondary, which only had safety Mike Harris returning. Despite the graduated talent, DuBose is pleased with the group’s progress and named Terrell Gordon, Gerald Palmer and Ty Quaze Mayo as players he expects to step up.

The defensive backs will be tested from the jump against Hoover thanks to quarterback Robby Ashford, the 6-foot-2 dual-threat who committed to Ole Miss in June.

DuBose said the Buccaneers may not have the 10-12 Division I signees that they usually produce, but that doesn’t mean they lack for talent. He explained the way the players work as a team makes them extremely dangerous, and he listed linebacker Jeppa Kilgore, defensive lineman Joseph Davis and the team’s two running backs as players to watch for.

DuBose likes to test his Red Devils with top-tier opponents. By playing a team that hasn’t lost to an in-state opponent in Week 1 since 1999, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

“It's going to show all your deficiencies. It's going to make you go to work to get those things corrected. What better time to find them out than Week 1?” DuBose said. “Getting a win is nice for the fans, but at the end of the day it's how we get better each week. The only way you can get better is to go play the best teams out there. Hoover is one of those teams if not the team.”

DuBose said the keys to having a chance against Hoover is avoiding turnovers and creating them on defense, which was pivotal for the Red Devils in their 52-7 championship game victory last December. DuBose also put the onus on his offensive and defensive linemen to win the battle in the trenches and stressed that mistakes in special teams could be the difference in winning and losing.

Central has added a national element to its year-long goals and enter the season ranked as one of the premier teams in the country. The Red Devils have an incredible test ahead against the Buccaneers, but a victory would do wonders in becoming nationally renowned.

“It's one ballgame, but it is a ballgame with national implications. You're playing another team that's nationally known and ranked,” DuBose said. “We'll be excited to win it and put it behind us ... If you lose, you can't drop. You've got to stay even keel. You've got to go back to work, and you've got to get it done. If you win, you've got to celebrate and then be back ready to go again in 24 hours.”

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