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Football Top 5: A look at No. 4 Franklin

Franklin celebrates its 35-21 win over Damascus in the Class 3A state championship in December.
Franklin celebrates its 35-21 win over Damascus in the Class 3A state championship in December. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Leading up to the start of the public-school sports season Friday, The Baltimore Sun is unveiling its preseason Top 5 in football.

Saturday, we started with No. 5 Broadneck, and we will continue to count down each morning, concluding with No. 1 on Wednesday.

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The Sun's Top 15 and players to watch will be revealed Thursday in The Baltimore Sun and on baltimoresun.com.

The next team in our Top 5 rollout is …

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No. 4 Franklin

Coach: Anthony Burgos

Last season: 13-1, No. 2

Postseason: Class 3A state champion

First game: At McDonogh, Friday, 7 p.m.

Players to watch: ATH Steven Smothers, Sr.; DB Kareem Felder, Sr.; RB Sam Botchway, Jr.; LB Michael Gibson, Jr.; WR-DB Murad Hussain, Sr.; QB Jimmy Lahay, Sr.; DT Derian Green, Sr., DE Aman Speed, Sr.; OL Eric Ostrow, Sr.; WR Damon Hazelton, Jr.

Outlook: The Indians were the only local team to bring home a state championships in December  their second in a row  rallying from 21 points down to beat Damascus, 35-21. They capped the season with their 13th straight win, the longest active streak in the Baltimore area.

It doesn't hurt to have the area's best playmaker in Smothers, a West Virginia commit and two-time All-Metro selection who is a threat to score anytime he has the ball. With his speed and quickness, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Smothers had 1,440 all-purpose yards and 22 total touchdowns as a receiver, returner and cornerback.

In last year’s state championship game, he scored four touchdowns  three on receptions and one after a fumble recovery. He has scored six times in the past two state finals, including two touchdown receptions in the 20-7 victory over Linganore in 2013.

Smothers, however, is one of just four players returning to the Indians offense. The Indians do have eight returning on defense and add a stellar cornerback in 5-10, 175-pound Felder, a transfer from St. Frances committed to Ohio State.

Lahay, a 6-1, 200-pound pocket passer, takes over at quarterback from Jacquez Adams, who threw for 4,375 yards the past two seasons. Last fall, Lahay started one game and passed for 240 yards and four touchdowns against Kenwood.

In addition to Smothers, Lahay has plenty of other targets, including Hussain, who caught 18 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns last year. Felder, Gibson, Hazelton and Walt Wilson also could line up at receiver.

The Indians graduated 3,061 of their 3,539 total rushing yards, including Darius Hinton's 1,862. Botchway, who ran for 322 yards and four touchdowns last year, could pick up much of the slack, while Gerard Nutter and Murphy Paschall Jr., a transfer from Mount Saint Joseph, will bolster the backfield.

Also back is kicker Luis Belmontes (55 extra points and four field goals), who scored more points last season than any returning player other than Smothers.

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The big question mark for the Indians is their offensive line. Only Ostrow, at center, returns.

“I feel like we’ve got a very explosive offense  unproven but very explosive,” Burgos said. “The key to our success this year is our development on the offensive line. That’s the area where we have to provide the most attention.”

With the offense coming together  and it did enough to edge defending Class 4A state champion Northwest in a game-like scrimmage Friday night  the team will rely on an experienced defense.

Franklin allowed 13.5 points per games last season, then shut out Thomas Stone in the state semifinals and, after allowing 21 first-half points to Damascus in the final, held the Hornets scoreless in the second half.

The Indians should be strong in the secondary, where Damien Taylor, Smothers and Hussain all saw time. Plug in Felder, and that's a tough unit.

Lahay had started at middle linebacker but, as the starting quarterback, won't see that kind of time on defense. However, Gibson and Nutter are back.

Two veterans, Speed and Green, return to the line.

While the Indians lost some of their top players, they still bring back a lot of talent and add a handful of transfers and players who had been waiting in the wings. Burgos said this is a a new team in many ways.

"This year, it's more about finding ourselves," he said, "and trying to develop this year's team and not live in the past. Even though we had two different teams the last two years, it was dominated by a large senior class last year, so even though we had a new group of kids last year, we only lost four kids from the previous year. So this is a year where we really have to find ourselves and what type of character this team will have."

The Indians start the season with a new opponent and a highly anticipated clash of neighborhood teams as they travel to McDonogh on Friday night. The past two seasons, the Indians have lost to Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference foe Calvert Hall.

Burgos said the opener is a good barometer of where the team is now, but it's no predictor of the rest of the season. The Indians are 0-5 in their past five season openers and have gone on to the state final three times, with two championships.

"We are at the point in our program where it's not really about rebuilding," Burgos said. "It's just reloading and getting guys to understand what the expectation every single year is."

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