"They are really a quality opening opponent for us," Danville coach Sam Harp said. "They have good size everywhere. They have good strength and speed. They really have some athletes."
Manual lost two Division I players off last year's playoff team. Keenan Burton, a quarterback-safety, is now competing for playing time at receiver at Kentucky while tight end-linebacker Byron Tinker is at Marshall.
"They were two special players, but we think we have some good returning talent," Nichols said. "Whether that will be good enough to slow down Danville, I don't know."
Two quarterbacks probably will play for Manual
Harp thinks Manual's offense can be dangerous. Junior Austin Tiller is apt to replace Burton at quarterback, but sophomore Vance Woods also likely will play there, too.
"Tiller does a good job directing the offense and likes to throw. Woods is more apt to run rather than throw," Harp said.
Manual returns several talented running backs including B.J. Wright (526 yards on 107 carries in 2002), R.J. Young (239 yards and eight touchdowns) and Vincent Hobbs (353 yards and five touchdowns). Harp also says 220-pound tight end Rodney Carter can "run, catch and block as well as any tight end I've seen in a while."
Manual's defensive line could be a major test for Danville's offensive line that returns just two starters, guard Bryan Williams and tight end Mario Berry. They'll be joined by center Peter Thomas, tackles Ryan Hundley and Kenny Gambrel, and guard Deangleo Durham.
Manual's defense is anchored by tackles Kenneth "KO" Lewis and Jon Nwachakwu. Lewis had 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 50 tackles last year. Inside linebacker Patrick Bryant is the top returning tackler.
"They move around a lot on the line before you snap the ball," Harp said. "They do more stunts than any team I've seen. Their linebackers are active and blitz quite a bit in any situation. But the whole key will be our offensive line. Lewis is one of the top players in Jefferson County and we have to be able to block him."
Hawkins takes over at quarterback for Danville
If Danville can give its skilled players room to maneuver, the Admirals should have a productive offense. Junior Ronnie Hawkins takes over at quarterback and has been impressive in preseason scrimmages.
"He's only going to get better, too," Harp said. "He's shown how dangerous he can be with his speed when he's flushed out of the pocket or just rolls out. He's dangerous because of his speed."
Danville also has a pair of returning 1,000-yard rushers in junior Kelvin Turner and senior Charles Penix.
"They both run well. We just have to give them some blocks and that means blocking better than we did in our last scrimmage," Harp said.
The same goes for the placekicking protection. Harp has been concerned about his team's kicking game and was not happy with the results in last week's scrimmage. Starting kicker Zack Hampton needed seven stitches to close a cut on his chin when he was hit after his extra point try was blocked.
"There's no excuse for the way we protected the kicker last week," Harp said. "Zack will do our kicking, but our protection has to be better. We had been more concerned with our kick coverage and other aspects of our kicking game, but this week we've concentrated on protecting the kicker."
Nichols thinks Danville will protect everything on its own turf extremely well Saturday.
"We know we are playing one of the premier teams in the state in Danville," Nichols said. "We're thrilled to be part of this bowl, which everyone says is one of the best in the state, and to have a chance to test ourselves against a storied program like Danville. They might be a Class A school, but they play as good of football as anyone in the state and we know that going in."