No. 4 Cisco (0-0) at Early (0-0)

7:30 p.m. Friday — McDonald Field

2006 Result: Early 32, Cisco 20

EARLY — If recent history is any indicator, the loser of Friday’s 7:30 p.m. Early Longhorns-Cisco Loboes season opener is in for a heck of a year.

The No. 4 Loboes and Longhorns will clash in the first game of the season at McDonald Field for the fourth year in a row. The teams swapped victories the last two years, and the result of the contest had no bearing on how the rest of the season played out.

In 2005, Early dropped its game against Cisco then responded with 13 straight wins and a run to the Class 2A Division II state semifinals. Last season, it was the Loboes who came up short, but followed with 14 consecutive victories to punch a ticket to the 2A Division II state title game.

“The last couple of years have been kind of a trade-off,” said Early head coach Robbie Tindol. “I think it’s going to be a war, a real battle, just because of how the two teams play. They’re not real fancy, but they’re really sound in what they do. They try to play kind of like us, smash-mouth football. It’s going to be a test to see who can whip who on the line.”

The offensive line is Early’s strength heading into the season, with three starters returning — Kaleb Hopson, Cody Thompson and Karlton Keesee. Newcomers expected to rotate into the mix include Tanner Brown, Taylor Nixon, Bailey Beene, Aaron Inman and Jose Rosales, when he returns from an injury next week.

The offensive question marks come at the skill positions, where the Longhorns are breaking in several new starters.

“I knew we’d have a lot of new faces and we’re going to be learning as we go,” Tindol said. “In the pre-district games, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re glad we’re playing good teams and we know we have to learn quickly on the field and see the game-type speed you can’t simulate in practice.”

Early will start Chase Reeves at quarterback Friday, though Nick Lyle will likely see most of the snaps the rest of the season. Lyle is being held out of the opener for disciplinary reasons, Tindol said.

Tindol also stated the Longhorns would rotate in several different backfield and receiver combinations. Among those expected to tote the pigskin are Collin Rome, Bob Atchley, Bo Ross and Chris Constancia. Receiver candidates include Austin Cochran, Michael Kramer, Guy Henry, John Moore, Jordan Pfenenger and Cody Bullard.

“We’ll be running a lot of different receivers in and out and we’ll be trying some different backs in the backfield,” Tindol said. “It’s time to get them in there and see what they can do.”

Though there are lots of new faces, Tindol stated he was happy with what he’s seen from the offense in scrimmages against Brady and Comanche.

“I feel pretty good about our offense,” Tindol said. “The offensive line, some of those guys have played a lot of games for us in the past and we have a lot of experience there. Our receiving corps is a little faster than what we’ve had normally. We’ve got some big receivers that catch the ball real well. Our running backs are doing a good job of grinding out yardage and getting through the hole quick.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the experience lies with a linebacker corps of Rome, Atchley, Ross, Mitchell Bailey and Ben Hager. Early will also be experimenting with different combinations both in the defensive front and the secondary, which will consist of the same players that line up along the offensive line and at receiver.

“Our defense is led by our linebackers and up front we’ll be trying out some new folks and finding out the right combination,” Tindol said. “We’ll be giving some people a couple of chances to win spots.

“We’ve got a whole new secondary to put out there, but it’s our third year of doing that. It’s good to have speed back there, but we know they’re going to make some mistakes. You just hope they’re not costly mistakes.”

Cisco, which received the No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press preseason poll released Sunday, returns seven offensive and seven defensive starters from a team that went 14-2.

Like the Longhorns, the Loboes are breaking in a new quarterback, but much of the rest of the offense is set.

Caleb Busby is the top returning rusher with eight touchdowns and 569 yards a year ago. Tight end Klay Strickland, who grabbed 12 catches for 195 yards and three scores, is the leading receiver returning.

Cisco’s defense is led by all-state linebacker Joey Hernandez, who racked up 123 tackles last year, all-region linebacker Caleb Sellers and cornerback Josh Bridges.

“Cisco does a good job of coaching their kids and getting them ready to play,” Tindol said. “They’re just good football players. They’re rated that high for a reason. They’ve got the experience.”

Though Tindol and company are a little leery heading into the opener, the Longhorns realize if they play fundamentally sound football they can match last year’s 1-0 start.

“Our offensive line is going to have to block and make holes, and our defense has to run to the football and wrap up,” Tindol said. “But the key to the game with two good football teams comes down to turnovers.”