By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

HOLCOMB There are 22 starting positions available on the offensive and defensive sides of the football.

Holcomb head coach Jerry Johnson knows what it is like to start a season with virtually every position decided before the first whistle blows.

That's pretty much how the past two seasons have been for Johnson, who now enters his fourth year at the Longhorn helm.

How things are different for Johnson as the 2009 campaign kicks off against Hoisington.

That's because one of the biggest, one of the most talented and one of the most successful classes in Longhorns history graduated last spring. Over their three-year varsity career the group posted an impressive 24-6 record.

Now that they have departed high school, it's time for a new group to take their place. And Johnson couldn't be more excited.

"When you've got kids competing for virtually every position, it makes it a lot more fun for the coaches and for the kids," Johnson said. "One thing I know. We've got hard-working kids who have had success through junior high and junior varsity. While they don't have a lot of varsity experience, they have played a lot of football."

Johnson has only two players this season who were tagged for starting duty last year. The rest of the first unit were comprised of those now-departed seniors. Heading that short list are a pair of seniors Levi Koehn and Nathan Gonzales.

"We will be looking for them to provide the leadership that is so important to a young team," Johnson said. "Nathan led our team in tackles and we think he will be one of the better middle linebackers in the area."

Gonzales is a 5-8, 185-pound linebacker who moves well and seemingly has a nose for the ball.

"If you're playing middle linebacker, you've got to be able to move laterally and then move in for the hit," Johnson said. "Nathan fits that description very well."

Gonzales will play on the offensive side of the ball as well this year at the fullback position in the Longhorns Veer-type option offense. Joining him in the backfield is the other Longhorn starter from last season Koehn.

"I feel very comfortable with those two in the backfield, they know our system and so the execution from the start has been very good," Johnson said.

Replacing quarterback Jordan Wilcox will be senior Logan Singhisen.

"I think Logan will do a very good job for us," Johnson said. "He's a good option-style runner and throws a nice ball. We're looking forward to utilizing his skills in various ways."

Like some of his coaching counterparts in the area, Johnson knows the early season schedule will dictate much of the team's overall success for the last half of the season. The Longhorns open with Hoisington at home. Last year, the Longhorns went to Hoisington and came home with a convincing 25-0 shutout of the Cardinals after the Cardinals had eliminated Holcomb the year before in the playoffs.

Following their home opener with Hoisington, the Longhorns will head south to face Hi-Plains League foe Sublette. In the heart of the regular season, they have home games with 3A nemesis Scott City (only two losses to the Beavers in 2008) and Class 4A tradition-packed Ulysses. Two of their three district games are on the road.

"It's never easy, but then we know that," Johnson said. "We just want to get better every week and be ready for districts."

The season will be a bit nostalgic for the Longhorns as it will be their final year in the Hi-Plains League since they joined back in the 1960s. Holcomb and Hugoton are joining Ulysses and Scott City of the Mid State Activities Association and Goodland and Colby of the Northwest Kansas League to form the Great West Athletic Conference which will begin competition in 2010.

"The Hi-Plains is a great league and I'm sure we'll still be playing some of those teams in the future," Johnson said. "The new league will be a great opportunity and we're excited about it as well."