Cody McCain loved how his team competed down the stretch in 2019.
And although Hanceville lost its final four games of the season, the third-year coach was more than encouraged with the way his program was trending entering the offseason.
Now, according to the 34-year-old, it's time to take on the challenges of 2020.
The first of those originated in January, when the Bulldogs were bumped from Class 3A to 4A.
The second obstacle came when the COVID-19 outbreak curtailed spring practice, which certainly didn't do any favors for football teams around the state — Hanceville included.
And while those unique circumstances have resulted in more unknowns than he'd like, McCain has chosen to take comfort in ... well ... comfort.
"Moving into Year 3, there's a different comfort level there," he said. "You're familiar with all the kids, your surroundings and your situation. And add that to the end of the season, when we felt we were playing good football despite dropping those last four games. But those were against Midfield, Fultondale, Locust Fork and Good Hope — all playoff teams. And we were within striking distance in all of those games. We felt we made a lot of good, solid progression. We also felt like if we had stayed in 3A, we'd be a favorite to make the playoffs in our region. We felt we had made enough improvements there."
Unfortunately for McCain, the AHSAA had other ideas and promoted the Bulldogs to 4A for the first time since 1995. Tack that on to the difficulties presented by COVID-19, and it's been a put-some-hair-on-your-chest kind of offseason.
"The challenge for everybody with COVID was and is the unknown," McCain said. "There's just so much unknown going into that first game. The kids aren't really set in our routine like normal, and you're basically taking your summer roster and playing a game. That's a challenge for us.
"We're not blessed with overwhelming numbers to begin with. We're looking at 25-30 kids for that first game, whereas other schools our size are going to have closer to 50. This will be a learning experience in the first year. We've got to continue to grow our roster by getting more kids out to play and more coaches out to coach. We want to be competitive."
Bo Joles — a senior with tons of starting experience — returns at quarterback for the Bulldogs.
He'll be joined in the backfield by Zach Campbell and Barrett Hardin, both of whom will receive their fair share of carries at running back this season.
Trevor Shadden and Logan Guthery, meanwhile, comprise the wide receiver corps.
Karsen Wilbanks will fulfill the H-back role, while Connor Pitts and Preston McDonald are each expected to contribute at tight end.
All in all, a number of solid options for McCain.
"The one advantage is we've played so many young guys the past couple of years, and those who are still here now have a lot of playing experience," he said. "They all pick up on concepts and other things pretty quickly. You don't have to spend as much time teaching philosophies. The guys all understand what we're trying to accomplish."
The biggest improvement for Hanceville could come on the offensive line, which returns four key contributors from last year's team — though the one loss, Will Akin, is a substantial blow.
Marvin Gonzalez, Kelson Moore, Tristan Herrera and David Bailey all have a year of starting experience under their belts, and Kyle Schultz, a transfer from Helena, is likely to snag the unit's final spot.
"These linemen we have now have been through it," McCain said. "Each of them, besides Will, was a first-year starter last season, and offensive line starts are critical. I feel more comfortable with these guys having now been through a season. I've been working with them, and the stuff they've picked up on is going to be a big help for us. They'll be able to communicate better."
As for what would constitute a successful offensive campaign?
"Last year, our scoring average was up, and we had fewer turnovers," McCain said. "And those were good things. But the one negative is that I thought we were too much of a big-play offense at times. Our scoring drives were either a huge pass or a huge run. We didn't have those 10- to 12-play drives that took six to seven minutes off the clock and ended with a touchdown.
"Having said that, you're never going to complain any time you score or have big chunk plays. But we need to be more consistent in having long, sustained drives, especially if we're coming off a long defensive series. We want to be able to move the ball with consistency."
Kendrick Johnson and Moore are the cornerstones of Hanceville's defensive line, while Schultz, Gonzalez, McDonald and L.J. Smith will rotate in at the other spot along the three-man front.
Wilbanks — the Bulldogs' top defender in 2019 — returns at linebacker, where he'll be joined by Preston McClerren, Brosnan Ward, Hardin and Guthery.
Campbell and Shadden will handle cornerback duties in the secondary, while Joles and Brady Cleek are slated to start at safety.
After giving up 38.2 points per game in 2018, the Bulldogs cut that down to 23.3 in 2019.
McCain is hoping that trend continues this fall.
"We felt like outside of the Fairview and Locust Fork games last year that we played pretty well on defense," he said. "Especially considering our roster size and the size of our kids. We were giving up so much size to everybody we played. But that unit made big improvements from our first year to last year. That group did enough for us to win a few more games than we did."
McCain added he'll be making all defensive calls this season.
"I’m excited about it," he said. "It’s the first time I’ve done it since 2012. We just want to use our team speed to our advantage and try to be aggressive on that side of the ball."
Brandon Huckaby is likely to handle kicking duties, while Joles will be called upon to punt.
Campbell and Guthery are set to return kicks and punts.
The Bulldogs haven't made the playoffs since 2013.
They did, however, take positive steps in Year 2 under McCain and are looking to reverse their fortunes this fall with several experienced playmakers returning on both sides of the ball.
The move to 4A and a competitive Region 6 that includes Etowah, Good Hope and Oneonta — among others — will make the road a bit tougher for the Purple and Gold, but that hasn't prevented McCain from placing his own expectations on this year's squad and the ones that follow.
"Based on our numbers and how things are calculated now, this isn't a one-and-done move for us," he said of the climb from 3A to 4A. "It looks like we're going to be in 4A for years to come. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us, though. They aren't going to take it easy on us. We've got to elevate ourselves to where we're competing with the best teams in our region and beating the middle- to lower-level teams to get our program where we want it to be."