Last season: 9-4 (5-2 in District 8-5A)
Key players: QB Payton Strambler (6-2, 200); CB/RB Blake Birdwell (5-11, 175); OT Jacob Collier (6-2, 245); DT Garrett Parkhill (5-10, 220); RB/S Kelton Tezeno (5-10, 175); DT Ronnie Burns-Lane (6-0, 230); CB Jailon Freeman (6-1, 165); WR Xander Richards (6-3, 175)
The big picture: What’s big and blue and experienced all over? The Centennial offense. The Spartans return eight offensive starters from a team that advanced to the regional semifinals a year ago. And it all starts with Payton Strambler, who will be taking snaps as head coach Kyle Geller’s starting quarterback for the third straight year. Going into Geller’s sixth season as head coach, it’s no small footnote that the pair will have been together for half of Geller’s tenure at Centennial at the end of this season. When the senior tucks the ball and gets running downhill, he’s one of the toughest ball-carriers in the district to bring down. And he does it frequently. Last season, Strambler rushed for more touchdowns (17) than he threw for (6), and his individual numbers don’t leap off the page, but his value as a leader is what makes him indispensable. “He’s like a coach on the field,” Geller said of Strambler. “He probably knows our offense better than anyone, except maybe me.” Three or more running backs will provide the lightning to Strambler’s thunder in the run game, including two seniors who play important roles on both sides of the ball. Kelton Tezeno and Blake Birdwell combined for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, but the two are also among the most experienced players on defense, and that unit returns just five starters. While the defense breaks in an all-new linebacker corps, the defensive line will feature anchors Garrett Parkhill, the District 8-5A defensive newcomer of the year in 2015, and Ronnie Burns-Lane. Even in the team’s first week of practice, there is a level of polish and crispness to this Centennial bunch that not every team, even those who have district championship aspirations like the Spartans do, is able to muster. With the exit of Aledo from the group of south Tarrant and Johnson County teams, Centennial has to be considered among the favorites for the District 9-5A crown in 2016, along with crosstown rival Burleson and Everman. Quarterback play might be what sets the Spartans apart in the end.
Quotable: “He’s got good hands and quick feet. He’s got really good technique off the line. I like covering him because he makes me better. He’s really lengthy - long stride, long arms, just a really good receiver.” — Cornerback Blake Birdwell on wide receiver Xander Richards
“We’ll play people a lot faster than us, a lot bigger than us. With us, it’s about grit and guts. More than anything, we’re just a blue-collar team.” — coach Kyle Geller
Notable: Centennial’s season opener is a rematch against Saginaw Boswell, after the Spartans sent the Pioneers home in the area round of the Class 5A Division I playoffs last November 28-10.