DES MOINES - Wondering how the new-look Fort Dodge football team will react to their first game under the Friday night lights?
Matt Miller is too.
The ninth-year head coach begins what he calls his most intriguing season to date here tonight, when the Dodgers open the 2011 campaign at Des Moines East.
Varsity kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Williams Stadium.
Eighteen new starters debut for Fort Dodge, the defending CIML Iowa Conference champion which has won 18 of its last 22 regular-season contests dating back to October of 2008. Eight newcomers are juniors and two are sophomores.
''I'm not saying it's going to be easy or a smooth transition at times, but I'm still really looking forward to the challenge,'' said Miller, who is 32-35 overall at the helm. ''There's something very exciting about taking a group of hungry kids out to prove themselves and starting a new journey.
LT: Joel Herrington, 255, sr.
LG: Ben Linde, 250, sr.
or Jordan Narber, 185, jr.
C: Ben Schnurr, 205, sr.
RG: Michael Carlson, 240, jr.
RT: Jake Porter, 240, so.
SE: Jaydan Bruhl-Lara, 170, sr.
or Tyler Vaughn, 155, jr.
SE: Isaac Lehman, 170, sr.
WB: Wesley Castro, 140, jr.
FB: Tommy Halligan, 175, jr.
TB: Austin Anderson, 160, jr.
QB: Sam Edwards, 215, sr.
K: Ty Littzen, 150, sr.
DE: Riley Prescott, 180, so.
NG: Matt Gast, 205, sr.
LB: Cole Jarrard, 185, sr.
LB: Jalen Mosley, 210, sr.
LB: Dillon Christensen, 190, sr.
LB: Adrean Johnson, 160, jr.
CB: Jericho Habben, 165, sr.
CB: Keegan Jones, 160, jr.
S: Will Gormally, 155, sr.
''Of course there will be bumps and bruises along the way, and we may take a few steps backward at times, but the key is we keep improving play by play, week by week, together.''
Miller's concerns are much more elementary with such an inexperienced squad: he's stressing fundamentals, repetition and the avoidance of self-inflicted wounds until everything becomes second nature to his players.
''We can't hurt ourselves with stupid penalties or missed assignments,'' Miller said. ''I'm OK with these kids being aggressive, but the mistakes can't pile up on us - especially the ones we can avoid.
''They're getting there. They understand what we're trying to do and why. We'll find out where we're at in a hurry (tonight), though, because in the CIML, you have to be sharp and ready on every snap.''
Senior captains Joel Herrington (OL), Ben Schnurr (OL), Ty Littzen (kicker) and Cole Jarrard (linebacker) return as starters. Co-captain Sam Edwards (quarterback) also saw action a year ago, as did linebackers Dillon Christensen and Jalen Mosley.
The rest of the lineup is either new to the varsity game or ''very green,'' as Miller pointed out. He highlighted his linebacking unit, which includes starters Jarrard, Mosley, Christensen and junior Adrean Johnson, as well as senior Jaydan Bruhl-Lara and juniors Wesley Castro and Anthony Credit.
''All seven will play,'' Miller said. ''It could definitely be the strength of our defense and the team in general.''
Littzen is a four-year starter who has 16 field goals to his credit and an 81-for-88 extra-point tally in his long career.
''It's nice to know if we get within range, Ty is there. And I'm talking big-time range,'' Miller said. ''If he shows the consistency of an elite kicker, he could really make a name for himself - even more so than he already has.''
The Scarlets have 13 starters back from a squad that went 4-6 last fall. East opened the 2010 campaign with three straight losses - including a 54-9 setback at Fort Dodge - but won four of six to reach the substate round.
Head coach Greg Schoon - a former Iowa State University player - returns quarterback Xavier James, Z-back Abu Sama, split end Blake Cunningham and three linemen on both sides of the ball.
At least five Scarlets will likely play significant snaps on both offense and defense, while the Dodgers list just one in Schnurr.
''The Sama kid is a playmaker, and their defensive tackles (Aaron Coyle and Auburey Roland) concern me,'' Miller said. ''They really got their season turned around after a rough start, and they pretty much have as much coming back as any team we'll see.''
Fort Dodge is healthy overall heading into the opener, with only senior Shea Springer (fullback/linebacker) and junior Gavin Thomas (lineman) out with injuries. Springer has a dislocated kneecap and is out indefinitely.
Contact Eric Pratt at (515) 573-2141, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org