CONYERS - Opening night is usually about starting fresh, getting re-acquainted with teammates and coaches in a football game atmosphere, and playing a non-region opponent.
None of that applies to Heritage and Salem.
The two rivals will meet today in the Region 8-AAAA opener with the Seminoles trying to even an all-time series that their county foe leads 8-7.
"The first game is the most important because it's the next game," Heritage coach Chad Frazier said. "Region 8 is very competitive, but Salem is all we're focused on right now."
On the surface it looks as if Salem has dominated the series of late, winning five of the last six meetings.
But the Seminoles' average margin of victory in their wins has only been 10 points, which Heritage could make up if its defense is as good as advertised.
Defensive end Rufus Jenkins returns to stabilize the line of scrimmage, a year after playing opposite Justin Jones (now at East Carolina). At nose tackle, Boyce Cornwell has taken over for the departed Melvin Jones (Presbyterian College), and Nigel Taylor has stepped in to the other defensive end position giving Frazier a front line he can trust.
"Last year (Jenkins) ... got a lot of experience with people trying to run away from Justin," Frazier said. "Rufus is one of our defensive and team leaders. Boyce Cornwell looks to be our next Melvin Jones (and) Nigel has really improved this preseason."
The linebacking core is strong as well with outside linebackers Travis Martin and Chase Davis the stand outs.
"Both play run and pass very well; they can run and love to hit," Frazier said.
Salem's defense is no slouch, either. A year after allowing no more than 24 points to any opponent, the 2009 unit could be even better.
Linebacker Dejone Butler, a converted lineman, leads the way, while nose tackle Jeremey Holland and defensive end Jordan Jackson are perfect complements.
"The strength of our defense is the front seven," said Seminoles coach Chad Estes. "We moved Dejone Butler from defensive end to linebacker and he has been a dominating player in practice. We think if our secondary can continue to improve that we are going to be better on defense this year.
"In Region 8, you have to be very multiple on defense because you will see a wide variety of different offenses. We are going to have to play assignment football to try and slow down Heritage Friday night."
One player Estes won't have to worry about slowing down is Garry Peters. The wide receiver/backup quarterback, who is a Clemson commitment and rivals.com's No. 15 overall prospect in the state, was suspended for the opener for an unspecified team violation.
Offensively, neither team appears to have the advantage based on last season's numbers.
The Patriots, led by junior quarterback Andre Wilson (2-2 as a sophomore starter), averaged 14 points per game in 2008, but showed the ability to score in bunches (three games with 38 or more points).
Salem's offense mirrored its defense - no more than 24 points scored in any game - but the points could increase with another solid running game, led by seniors Bradley Moon and Tyler Askew, and quarterbacks Jojo Smith, a senior, and junior Jarrett Brown.
"Bradley and Tyler can score from anywhere on the field," Estes said. "Jojo is the starter, but we feel very comfortable with either quarterback running our offense. Both are competitors and leaders."
Both teams are hoping for a playoff run, a difficult task in one of Class AAAA's most competitive regions.
"We work so hard and invest so much (and) our kids and our coaches genuinely try to do things right," Frazier said. "We take a business-type approach when it's time to work and yes, for those reasons, we expect to be a playoff team."
"We feel like we are a playoff team," said Estes. "We are looking forward to the challenge."
SideBar: Heritage at Salem
· Where: Seminole Stadium
· When: Tonight, 7:30
· Last meeting: Heritage 21, Salem 7
· Series: Heritage leads 8-7