HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Thomas Holford and his teammates were none too pleased with the way the most successful season in Presbyterian Christian School football history came to an end last fall.
The Bobcats fell 24-21 to Jackson Preparatory School in the Division AAAA semifinals of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools playoffs, ruining an undefeated season and the dream of the program's first state championship.
"As team, we're still mad, and we've been working really hard since November," Holford said. "We're really expecting to win. There's not really pressure, but it's kind of an expectation now."
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Holford is expected to be one of the leaders when the Bobcats take the field to open the 2017 season on Aug. 17 against visiting Mississippi High School Activities Association foe, West Marion High School.
"He's mean," PCS coach Joey Hawkins said. "He's one of the nicest young men you ever want to meet, but when he gets on the field, he's mean.
"He's such a leader. His motor runs. He's got every attribute you want."
Holford, whose great-uncle, Glen Howe, was named to the University of Southern Mississippi's "Team of the Century" at offensive tackle, said football had been a part of his life since grade school.
"But I probably didn't start getting a real passion for it until eighth or ninth grade," he said. "It's built since then and now it's my passion in life."
The Bobcats will have some huge holes to fill after losing the state's all-time leading rusher Isaiah Woullard, who ran for 8,324 yards, including more than 5,800 yards over his final two seasons; four-year starting quarterback Luke Hudson and lynchpin linebackers Rush and Justin Stewart.
But PCS returns its entire offensive line, Holford and fellow junior Tyson Keys at tight end and eight starters on defense.
"Early, we're going to try and cater to our defense, be sound on special teams and try to find our identity on offense, and that's going to take a while," Hawkins said. "I wish we could just clap our hands and have an instant offense ready, but it's going to take a lot of reps and a lot of work. That's just part of the game."
Brandon Thornton, PCS' leading receiver in 2016, will take over for Hudson at quarterback, while running back will be populated by a committee that is expected to include senior Sheldon James, junior Alden Rhian and sophomores Eric Robinson and Jake Sumrall. Keys is expected to used as a short-yardage power back.
Senior Barrett Slonaker and the two tight ends, Holford and Keys, have the most receiving experience, but Hawkins said the Bobcats do have a potential game-changing asset: speed.
"At lot of our receivers, they're mostly young and haven't played much, but we've got a lot of speed, those guys outside," Hawkins said. "It always come down to how many playmakers do you have on both sides of the ball and we're trying to find as many as we can."
The biggest offensive asset PCS returns will be the big fellows up front.
Senior center Weston Rogers is a three-year center. Senior right guard D.J. Shows, who Hawkins called "the best guard I've ever coached," was All-District in 2016. Senior left guard Eddie Fairchild played every offensive down last season. The interior trio will be flanked by senior right tackle Jared Clinton and junior left tackle Matthew Morgan.
"We've got our entire line back," Hawkins said. "We've never had our entire line back. That's going to make a difference."
Morgan, Keys and Holford are expected to be among the defensive line regulars, with junior Harrison St. John shifting from noseguard to linebacker.
Holford was an All-District selection with a district leading 13 sacks.
"I like the physicality, and a little more free-wheelin' on that side of the ball," Holford said. "I feel like I'm better at it."
Seniors Nathan Griffin and Jack Patterson also are expected to help fill the slots vacated by the Stewarts, while Thornton and Rhian return as starters in the secondary.
PCS also returns both place-kickers, senior O'Neill Walters and Jack Runnels.
After last fall's 11-1 season, Holford said he and his teammates want to keep building the program.
"We had a taste of it last year, but up until last year, we really didn't have a mindset about it," Holford said. "We've got a lot of players coming back, so, like I said, now we've got a good mindset about expectations of winning and expectations of going all the way."