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LUFKIN — With more than 30 seniors gone from a team that won 21 games — including five playoff victories — over the past two seasons, an outsider might ponder if Huntsville football is headed toward a drop-off.

As iconic college football coach and commentator Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend.”

The Hornets, No. 12 in Class 5A Division II, made their final preseason preparations Friday night at Lufkin. And despite a bevy of new faces and an opponent that enters the 2020 season at No. 11 in Class 5A Division I, they didn’t disappoint.

Here are three takeaways from Huntsville’s last test before next week’s season opener.

NEW LOOK, NO DROP-OFF

Huntsville hardly looked like a team with only a handful of varsity returners, as it played an East Texas football power to a 7-7 tie over the course of two live quarters. The Hornets even had a chance to pull ahead in the final minute, but a blocked field goal by Lufkin kept the score knotted up.

At no point did the Hornets appear outmatched by their larger and higher-ranked opponent. As expected, there were a few breakdowns — especially in some early untimed possessions — that led to big plays by the Lufkin offense. However, Huntsville was able to get the ball back in its red zone on three occasions — twice with fourth-down stops and once on an interception at the goal line by cornerback Ethan Minor. Nemo Winfrey also had an interception for the Hornets that would have likely been returned for a touchdown if not for the play being blown dead by the officials.

“We just had to come out and play with a different intensity,” Huntsville senior defensive lineman Edward Bobino said. “We practice hard, so coming in and playing full speed in the scrimmage was easy. You practice how you play, and it really showed tonight.”

“The first couple series we were a little nervous … but as we got going into the live quarter, I thought we played really well,” Huntsville head coach Rodney Southern added.

As for the Hornet offense, junior quarterback A.J. Wilson was able to find a speedy set of receivers for long gains throughout the night — and the young signal-caller isn’t hiding his excitement about this group’s potential.

“We have a pretty good young team and we can finally play football,” Wilson said. “We’re hoping we can go far.”

WILSON BRINGS BIG-PLAY POTENTIAL

The Hornets lose a former Offensive MVP and two-year starter at quarterback in Matthew Southern, but the presence of Wilson should allow Huntsville to not miss a beat offensively.

Wilson, a three-sport athlete with blinding speed, did the most damage with his arm on Friday — and showed off his big-play potential in the process. The junior had five completions of 30 yards or more, including a pair of 75-yard touchdown passes, showcasing his ability to keep his eyes downfield when the pocket breaks down.

“The experience he got last year, even though it was only a couple games, obviously helps when you come into a situation like this,” Coach Southern said. “A.J. is going to do things athletically because he’s really athletic, but he also does a good job of taking coaching and understanding what to do. He made a couple mistakes tonight, but that’s expected.

“He’s extending plays, but he also knows to keep his eyes down the field, because we have some guys that can run. We were able to get behind Lufkin a couple times and they ended up being big plays. We’re hoping to do that all year long.”

D-LINE WRECKS HAVOC

The Hornets’ most seasoned position group on either side of the ball is the defensive line, and it showed on Friday.

Each of Huntsville’s starting defensive linemen — seniors Edward and Brian Bobino, Quaterian Riles and Sebastian Patterson — recorded at least one tackle for loss, with the group combining for over a half-dozen takedowns behind the line of scrimmage. The Hornets appeared to push back or stand up the Lufkin offensive line on nearly every snap, and were so disruptive that the Panthers abandoned the shotgun for nearly the entire night.

“The big thing is they were trying to establish some of their base run stuff tonight,” Southern said. “For us to be able to keep that — for the most part — in check is good going in, because we’re about to see a really good 5A team and then three 6A teams. We’re going to have to stop the run, and we expect that. Those seven or eight guys that we’re going to roll in on the D-line have to play like that.”

NEXT UP

Huntsville will open its 2020 season at home next Friday against Nederland, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Bowers Stadium.