Independents / other teams prep football preview

James Hawkins
Special to Detroit News
Saline quarterback Josh Jackson

2014 records in parentheses

Algonac (1-8), Almont (12-1), Ann Arbor Huron (2-7), Ann Arbor Pioneer (5-4), Ann Arbor Skyline (0-9), Armada (3-6), Chelsea (9-3), Dearborn Heights Star International (3-5), Detroit Cesar Chavez (2-7), Detroit Consortium (3-6), Detroit Country Day (8-5), Detroit Edison Academy (3-6), Detroit Westside Christian Academy (2-6), Dexter (0-9), Harper Woods (0-9), Holly (0-9), Marine City Cardinal Mooney (4-5), Memphis (1-8), Monroe (7-4), Ortonville Brandon (4-5), Richmond (10-2), Saline (12-2), Ypsilanti (6-4), Ypsilanti Lincoln (6-4)

Top four players

1. Ann Arbor Skyline senior linebacker Daelin Hayes is one of the top 2016 football prospects in the country. The highly-touted four-star recruit is ranked the No. 1 player in the state by Rivals and 247Sports, and ranked the No. 12 athlete in the nation by ESPN. Hayes (6-foot-4, 250) played part of last season at St. Bonaventure in Ventura, California, before transferring to Detroit Cass Tech in the fall and then to Skyline in the winter. "He has a great attitude, work ethic, leadership quality and is great teammate," coach Chanterius Brock said of the USC commit. "He just has that playmaker ability and can line up in multiple positions." Brock said Hayes will spend time at defensive end, and will also be used at running back and tight end on offense.

2. Saline senior quarterback Josh Jackson established himself as one of the top signal-callers in the state while piloting the team's high-scoring offense all the way to the Division 1 state final. Jackson, a Virginia Tech commit, threw for 1,863 yards, 16 TD and three interceptions, completing 67 percent of his passes (127-of-190). Jackson (6-2, 200) also rushed for 783 yards and 10 scores, averaging over seven yards per carry. "He has size and can throw it really well, but what people forget is he's a dual threat," coach Joe Palka said. "He's good at extending plays and it's hard to bring him down. He finds a way to pick up that crucial third down, and when you have a kid like that at quarterback, you always have chance."

Saline receiver Jeb Palka

3. Saline senior receiver Jeb Palka was Jackson's main target and the team's leading receiver. He tallied 939 yards receiving on 77 receptions and 241 yards rushing on 22 carries to go along with 14 total TD. Palka (5-11, 165) also had 124 all-purpose yards in the Division 1 title game. "He's got great hips and feet and good speed, but the biggest thing is he's elusive and very shifty," Joe Palka said of his son. "He makes all the tough, critical catches, especially on the sidelines." Palka holds an offer from Air Force and has received interest from several MAC schools.

4. Ypsilanti senior athlete Marquis Smith did a little bit of everything last year, whether it was lining up in the backfield and slot on offense or patrolling the secondary on defense. Before missing the final four games of the season with a shoulder injury, the four-year starter averaged over 100 yards of total offense and his versatility kept defenses guessing. "He's tough to contain," coach Lamanzer Williams said. "He changes direction well and he's stronger than you think for his size. He can do it all." Smith (6-0, 170) threw for 292 yards and four TD, rushed for 393 yards and five scores, and caught eight passes for 57 yards. He's committed to Kansas as a cornerback and kick/punt returner.

Top four story lines

1. Saline returns several key pieces of its record-setting offense (531 points), including three starting linemen and its top two receivers, but will have to replace its entire linebacker corps and secondary from its Division 1 runner-up team. "We can't rest on our laurels," Palka said. "We'll have to get the defense to mature quickly and rely on our offense to start the season, but our guys know the expectation. We're not afraid of anybody." Saline's young defense will be tested in its season opener against Rockford at home.

Saline coach Joe Palka

2. Despite not winning a single game in his first year at the helm, Skyline second-year coach Chanterius Brock has plenty to be excited about. There's the addition of talented transfers in Daelin Hayes, junior receiver Hunter Rison (MSU commit) and senior quarterback Joe Bob Walker, as well as the return of all-league cornerback/receiver Guy Brent and up-and-coming tailback/linebacker Charles Jones. More importantly is the added depth and experience at several key positions and the benefit of working together for a full offseason.

"Last year was kind of a perfect storm of adversity. Only five guys who started had any varsity experience," Brock said. "We feel great about this season and what we have coming back ... A lot of these guys have something to prove."

3. Almont and Richmond are coming off wildly successful 2014 campaigns, yet will have major holes to fill in 2015. Almont graduated a large senior class that helped set a program record for wins (12) and points scored (618) en route to making its second Division 5 semifinal appearance in four years. It also lost coach Jeremy Ferman, who resigned in June. Familiar face James Leusby, who coached Almont's junior varsity team for the past 14 years, will take over and strive to continue the winning tradition.

Richmond set a new mark for points scored (443) and reached double-digits wins for the second time as it advanced to a Division 4 regional final, but will have to replace several offensive weapons, including all-state running back Devin Skatzka, tight end Jake Schmidt (all-state honorable mention) and top receiver Bret Zihlavsky (all-state honorable mention).

4. Can Country Day make it 10 in a row? After extending its playoff streak to nine consecutive seasons and falling just short of its second Division 4 final in three years (a 28-14 semifinal loss to Lansing Sexton), there's a strong possibility. Country Day opens with a rather favorable schedule, playing just one opponent (Port Huron) with a winning record through the first six weeks. The make-or-break point will come during a grueling three-game stretch to close out the regular season against Division 2 heavyweight Birmingham Brother Rice, two-time defending Division 8 state champ Muskegon Catholic Central and Division 1 Temperance Bedford.