Nick Kemp had served for two seasons with former Graves County head football coach Lance Gregory as his defensive coordinator. Heading into the 2019 season with Gregory stepping down at the end of last year, Kemp looked to continue his role under Morgan Cruce, who was hired in January to replace Gregory to lead the Eagles.

In May, Cruce resigned, citing personal reasons. Kemp was then pegged as the new head coach with an interim tag.

So along with coaching Graves County this year, Kemp is hoping to get the "interim" term removed too.

"What led me here is not how I thought it would go down, but I'm glad at how everything worked out and I'm just excited about the opportunity," he said. "This is where I want to be. I don't want to go anywhere else. I'm not looking to go anywhere else.

"This is where we live and where I always want to live, and hopefully I'll have a long tenure here," Kemp added.

Heading into the season, which kicks off Friday at Murray, Kemp said he's been pleased with the intensity of his team during the summer practice schedule but understands there has been room to improve.

"I'm happy with the progress that we're making, but there's room for improvement," he said prior to school starting.

There will be a new ball slinger after four years of Ryan Keith Mathis taking snaps as the Eagles' QB. During the summer, Graves County was looking at a pair of options in senior Cody Goatley and junior John Ben Brown.

Goatley (6-3, 205) is also a highly recruited linebacker and running back, and already has some impressive experience under center. His sophomore season, Goatley filled in for an injured Mathis and promptly set a school record for single game passing yards (405) in the Eagles' 2017 opener at Murray.

At 6-5, Brown's size gives him an edge in seeing the field. However as a sophomore, he only completed one pass for five yards. Still, both have been in a summer battle for the starting job.

"They're both embracing it and both encouraging each other and everybody on the team," Kemp said. "It doesn't matter who's in there, we're just trying to get the job done and (for) everybody on the team, it's what's best for us."

It is a new experience for Kemp and the Eagles.

"For as long as I've been coaching here, there hasn't been a quarterback controversy or battle, so this is the first year we've had two kids splitting all the reps and battling each other for the No. 1 spot," he said. "We're not where we want to be, but they're both accepting their roles and encouraging each other and helping each other out and that's the big thing."

While the eventual winner will straddle up to the line for the first offensive series Friday at Murray, just whom that person - Goatley or Brown - will throw to is without question within a strong receiving corps.

Graves County lost Drew Cooper, its top receiver from last year, to graduation. But junior Race Richards was right on his heels with 556 receiving yards from 34 receptions and four touchdowns.

Along with Richards, Kemp said senior receivers Nelson Browning (5-9, 175) and Riley Thompson (6-1, 190) will help lead the Eagles' pass attack.

"Race Richards is going to be a playmaker. He had several great catches last year," Kemp said. "Riley Thompson had an amazing offseason and is probably the most improved person on our team on both offense and defense. He's a big kid who's out there playing receiver and moves to tight end to block for us."

Browning caught 20 passes for a combined 346 yards for five touchdowns his junior season.

"Nelson does a great job of getting open and made a lot of big plays for us last year," Kemp said. "There's several more but those three kids are going to be leading us."

The ground game will also see a committee put together to move the ball. Browning ran for 94 yards and a touchdown last year. Goatley led the team in rushing yards with 502 and nine TDs in eight games. He was sidelined the final three games after suffering a broken foot in the Eagles' game at Christian County.

Sophomore Clint McKee (5-11, 165) may be the one to look to at running back this season following his freshman year when he ran for 395 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"It's going to be who's got the hot hand," Kemp said. "Cody's going to be running the ball sometimes and Nelson's going to go back to running back, as well, and I think Clint proved himself as a freshman and he's beefed up a little this season.

"If he can keep his speed, then I think he's going to get the majority of reps at running back, but there could be some times where it's split up between those three guys," the coach added.

Blocking and opening lanes will fall to a sizable force on Graves County's offensive line. The front features four juniors - Lincoln Harris (5-9, 230), Mitchell Cotton (5-10, 245), Micah Smith (5-11, 240) and Briar Buzanis (6-2, 250) - and senior Jacob Mills (6-2, 235).

With Smith at center returning after being sidelined with an injury last season, they return experience following an 11-game stint last year that saw the Eagles finish second in the First District 5A class. They eventually fell to Grayson County in the first round of the postseason, 54-35.

"As the season went along, they progressed," Kemp recalled. "We're still young but we're big kids who like to get after it. If we can get them blocking the right person, I feel we'll be successful.

"The aggression is there, the size is there, and the strength is there," he added. "It's them knowing what they're supposed to be doing and not being confused about it; just making sure they're on the same page."

Last year, the defensive line had a three-front look. This year, the Eagles have gone to a four-man front with seniors Sam Thompson (6-0, 235) and Grant Womble (6-0, 240) and ends Jake VanCleve (6-1, 190) and junior Alex Ramage (5-11, 205).

Kemp said Womble will be the defensive line's engine. "He's got a motor that doesn't stop. I have a hard time feeling people are going to be able to block him one-on-one," the coach added.

He added that there may be some offensive linemen, like Buzanis and Cotton, shifting over to help with the D-Line to add to the depth.

"If they keep working hard, we have five O-linemen and four D-linemen where they don't have to go both ways," Kemp said. "We keep telling them at any time one person could take their position and they'll have to go both ways. They've kind of embraced that and they work hard against each other and that's great."

Goatley will be playing inside linebacker alongside Brady Nall (5-11, 205) after he played outside linebacker last year.

"That's a lot of beef in there, so they should be good," Kemp said.

Caleb Beck (6-0, 180) will play middle linebacker and safety in a utility manner. Thompson was a safety his junior year but moved to outside linebacker this year. He's already received college football offers from Kentucky Wesleyan, Bethel and Morehead State.

In the defensive backfield, Richards and sophomore Mason Grant (5-9, 140) will play safety. Kemp noted that freshman Cayden Goodman (5-8) could also see time on the field in that regard.

"We've got to see if he can hit," Kemp said. "We know he can cover the pass."

Browning is a four-year starter at corner and will join junior Kyler Madding (5-11, 130). Another player to watch is Elijah Burns (5-6, 140), Kemp said.

"He's a little undersized and not as fast, but he's so coachable and is always around the football," he said.

Graves County has a freshman kicker in freshman soccer player Conner Thomas. Kemp said being a freshman that Thomas' leg isn't as strong, but that he should be automatic for point-after kicks and inside the 30-yard line.

"You'll hear his name the next four years," the coach said.

The Eagles will also have a new district lineup with only defending district champ Owensboro remaining after the exodus of Christian County, Owensboro Apollo and Marshall County from 5A or the district. Now, the district is made up of the Red Devils, Breckenridge County, Ohio County, Grayson County and Muhlenberg County.

Marshall will be the final game of the regular season, hearkening back to the mid-autumn Pumpkin Bowl years.

"The first four games are pretty tough," Kemp said of Murray, McCracken County, Paducah Tilghman and crosstown "Battle of the Birds" rival Mayfield. "We'll be tested. If we can prove ourselves in those four games, I think the district will take care of itself."

# Name Ht. Wt. Pos. CL

2 Cody Goatley 6-3 205 WR/LB Sr

3 Aiden Dowdy 5-4 130 WR/DB Jr

5 Alex Gardner 5-8 120 RB/LB Jr

6 Brady Nall 5-11 205 RB/LB Sr

7 Nelson Browning 5-9 175 WR/DB Sr

9 Lucas Medley 5-6 140 WR/LB Jr

10 Jack Lykins 5-7 130 WR/DB So

11 Mason Grant 5-9 140 WR/DB So

12 Caleb Beck 6-0 180 WR/DB Sr

15 John Ben Brown 6-5 175 QB/DB Jr

16 Wesley Felts 5-10 150 QB/DB So

17 Jacob Woods 5-9 150 WR/DB Sr

18 Riley Thompson 6-1 190 TE/LB Sr

20 Karson Madding 5-10 125 WR/DB Jr

21 Parker Thompson 5-8 155 RB/DB Sr

23 Tommy Pitts 5-4 120 RB/LB So

27 Kyler Madding 5-11 130 WR/DB Jr

29 Clint McKee 5-11 165 RB/DB So

30 Caleb Cornwell 5-7 160 WR/LB So

33 Race Richards 6-2 165 WR/DB Jr

34 Elijah Burns 5-6 140 RB/LB So

36 Ty Weatherly 5-6 110 WR/DB So

38 Josh Sutton 5-6 120 WR/DB So

42 Ben Jernigan 5-6 170 OL/LB So

44 Cody Henderson 6-0 170 WR/LB Jr

45 Trevor Rotolo 5-9 190 OL/DL So

46 Lance Fulk 6-0 195 WR/LB So

50 Sam Thompson 6-0 235 OL/DL Sr

51 Garrett Brown 5-10 190 OL/DL So

52 Alex Ramage 5-11 205 OL/DL Jr

53 Jake VanCleve 6-1 190 OL/DL Sr

54 Lincoln Harris 5-9 230 OL/LB Jr

56 Isaac Champman 5-10 165 OL/DL So

57 Jackson Worthen 5-10 235 OL/DL Sr

58 Connor Gilpin 5-6 225 OL/DL Jr

59 Grant Womble 6-0 240 OL/DL Sr

60 Luke Nesler 6-1 235 OL/DL So

62 Fletcher Anderson 5-11 195 OL/DL So

64 Jacob Mills 6-2 235 OL/DL Sr

66 Kaiden Stimson 5-10 200 OL/DL So

67 Ethan O'Guinn 5-11 250 OL/DL Jr

68 Austin Rule 5-10 195 OL/DE Jr

70 Matt Flemmons 5-10 285 OL/DL So

72 Eli Kirschbaum 5-10 190 OL/DL Jr

73 Caleb Armstrong 6-0 390 OL/DL Jr

74 Briar Buzanis 6-2 250 OL/DL Jr

75 Mitchell Cotton 5-10 245 OL/DL Jr

76 Micah Smith 5-11 240 OL/DL Jr

82 Drake Turner 5-9 135 WR/LB Jr

83 Noah Jones 6-0 145 WR/DB So

84 Dylan Guthrie 5-7 140 WR/DB So

Additional players: Clay Mills, Drake Defreitas, Ethan Thompson, Cadyen Goodman, Bryan Easley, Kendall Lawrence, TJ Smith, Micah Swift, Conner Thomas, Cade Goatley, Jack Cope, Ty Hall, JR Barnett, Darren Morris, Cody Wilson, Marshall Hale, Gage Tucker, Drayden Treas, Koye Wiggins, John Nichols.

Head Coach: Nick Kemp

Assistant Coaches: Nathan Bazzell, Jacob Chambers, Eli Collins, Tyler DeBernardi, Jarod Fite, Jason Goatley, Caleb Hargrove, Bobby Potts, Jon Shell.

Eric Walker is the sports editor for The Mayfield Messenger. He has also worked as a staff writer for the Messenger, editor for the Murray Ledger & Times, and in public relations. He is married with two sons.