File Photo Dacula's Marcus Cox (9) runs the ball up field during a game last year. Cox rushed 832 yards for the Falcons last season in nine games.
Just over three weeks after the official beginning of preseason practice, Georgia's 2011 high school football season kicks off tonight right here in Gwinnett County.
Norcross will welcome Dacula to Blue Devil Stadium tonight at 7:30 in a game that will be broadcast by WSB on its digital cable affiliate -- one of only two games being played around the state.
"It's right around the corner, and it's exciting," Blue Devils coach Keith Maloof said earlier this week. "The kids have worked hard. Let's see what happens."
That's the way both teams have to look at tonight's match-up given how little practice time they've had in preparation.
However, while both Maloof and his Dacula counterpart Jared Zito are concerned about some early-season sloppiness, they also know the only way to deal with it given the schedule is to work through it.
"It's happening quick. Too quick," Zito said. "I think we'll be ready. We're about as ready as we can be. There comes a point where you get better in games than you do in pracitce. I don't know if we're at that point, but we're getting close."
Tonight's matchup features two teams looking for a springboard to a strong season.
The host Blue Devils (9-3) did just that by starting last season with a 21-12 win at Dacula en route to their fifth state playoff appearance in the last six years.
However, while they return several key starters -- such as Super Six receiver Jason Croom, who will announce his college verbal commitment before tonight's game, and fellow seniors Domonique Mason, Isaiah Hinsley and Tanner Maloof -- there are others who will be getting their first assignment as varsity starters.
Most notably, quarterback Joseph Wilber and eight new starters on defense will be going up against a more veteran Dacula squad that returns 19 starters on offense and defense, plus both starters in the kicking game.
"Maybe defensively there are guys who have got to make a name for themselves," Maloof said.
"But we feel pretty good. Wilber is a new quarterback, and we've got some new faces in new places, but our offensive line is pretty intact.
"(Dacula has) pretty much everybody back. ... The first three games, we play a pretty tough schedule, and we've got to get us ready for region (7-AAAAA)."
While the visiting Falcons do welcome back plenty of experience, including skill players Rocky Capobianco, Marcos Cox and Davian McEwan on offense, plus almost the entire defense, there is one potential equalizer.
After years under a run-dominated offense, this year's Falcons squad hopes to fly high with a new, more wide-open spread set.
Zito knows their learning curve will be strenuously tested the first time out, and that his team must execute well and avoid mistakes.
"The critial thing on offense is don't turn the ball over and don't do anything stupid to put yourself in a bad position in terms of penalties," Zito said. "And defensively, we've got to play good enough to make people earn it, or make them goof up.
"(Norcross has) a lot of big-play potential on both sides of the ball, so we have to limit that."
One thing different about his year's matchup from the seven previous meetings will be that only one member of the Maloof family will be coaching in it.
Zito will be on the Dacula sideline instead of Maloof's older brother Kevin, who stepped down after 20 seasons as the Falcons' coach last December after dealing with fatigue from prostate cancer surgery earlier in 2010.
While Keith admitsit will be different not doing battle with his brother's team, he also said that he is just as excited to coach this season opener as any other.
"It takes some of the family emotion out of it," Keith Maloof said.
"But then, it was always tougher on (Keith's wife) Lisa and (Kevin's wife) Debbie than it was on us. We've always been competitive.
"But it's a game, and that's always exciting. And we'll go as hard as we can."