BVAL

Running backs will take center stage in the Bay Valley Athletic League this season.

Freedom has elite recruit Joe Mixon back for his senior season, and he'll be heavily relied upon if the Falcons hope to repeat as BVAL champions. The Falcons are breaking in a new quarterback in sophomore Joe Sweeney, and he'll have a number of experienced receivers to target. Freedom's offensive line is fairly young, but its defense features seven returning starters.

Pittsburg also has an outstanding tailback in Harris Ross and a young quarterback in junior Keith Walker. The Pirates should have one of the better offensive lines in the area, but they do have holes to fill on defense.

Deer Valley, with Nsimba and Nzuzi Webster, might be the most talent-rich team in the league. The Wolverines also have been bolstered by transfers, notably defensive back/running back Robert Taylor, who starred last year at Castro Valley.

For Antioch, seniors Cranberry Gato and Leonard Grillo anchor the offensive line. Senior Isaac Lewis takes over at quarterback, and sophomore wide receiver Ryan Payne should be one of his top targets.

Both Heritage and Liberty have new head coaches who have injected enthusiasm into the programs. Don Sanders takes over at Heritage, which finished the 2012 season by winning three of four, and Jeff Walters will try to get the Lions above .500 for the first time since 2005.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Pittsburg.

-- Curtis Pashelka

DFAL

Campolindo will try to make it three championships in a row in what should again be one of the East Bay's most balanced leagues from top to bottom.

The Cougars are loaded at the skill positions, though they'll have to start the season without returning QB Andrew Zolintakis, who has a stress fracture in his throwing arm.

While the Cougars are the favorites, there are challengers capable of dethroning the two-time defending champs.

Miramonte, which finished second the past two years, is led by big-armed QB Drew Anderson. Dublin, Alhambra and Dougherty Valley also return their starting quarterbacks.

Acalanes fared well last year when coach Mike Ivankovich overhauled the offense and defense. With Peter Mitchell returning at running back, the Dons could be primed for another solid year.

Dublin has made big strides under third-year coach John Wade, though the Gaels graduated a talented senior class.

Mike Downing is the league's newest coach, taking over at Las Lomas for Doug Longero.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Campolindo

-- Stephanie Hammon

DVAL

Clayton Valley Charter and its new coach, Tim Murphy, took the Diablo Valley Athletic League by storm last season, going undefeated in league play on the way to the first North Coast Section football title in school history.

With an experienced offensive line, large roster and another year to learn Murphy's system, the Eagles will try to make it back-to-back titles. But they'll have to do it with a new quarterback, a new running back and a defense that was hit hard by graduation.

There are also several talented teams gunning for the defending champs.

Northgate is coming off its best season in more than 15 years and figures to be in the thick of the title race again with the program now on solid footing.

While Concord lost 20 starters, don't expect a complete rebuilding year. QB Mitchell Daniels is back, and the Minutemen have a track record of success.

College Park is always a tough matchup, and this year should be no different with Dimitri Salido returning at QB.

Ygnacio Valley and Mt. Diablo will both be looking for improvement after challenging 2012 seasons.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Clayton Valley Charter

-- Stephanie Hammon

EBAL

In what shapes up as the Year of the Lineman in the EBAL, California gets the nod as the predicted champion. The Grizzlies and San Ramon Valley were co-champions last year, and coaches expect another dogfight this season from top to bottom.

Grizzlies' versatile quarterback Cameron Owen looks poised for a big season as the first returning starting quarterback coach Eric Billeci has had.

The Wolves, Monte Vista and California feature strong lines. Mustangs quarterback Nikita Zamora is one of the area's best, and the Wolves feature runner Marcus de la Pena (1,209 yards rushing, 2012) and explosive junior wideout J.J. Koski. New SRV starting QB Matt Winaker has good feet and smarts.

Foothill has an intoxicating blend of explosive skill and senior leadership. If heavily recruited quarterback Kyle Kearns has a big year as expected, the Falcons will be a dangerous team. Granada figures to be improved after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

Amador Valley, which surged to third place last season, has questions at the skill positions but is solid up front.

Run-oriented Livermore has a strong nucleus on the line and athletic newcomers.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: California

-- Matt Schwab

INDEPENDENTS

De La Salle: For the first time in 34 years, someone other than Bob Ladouceur will be calling the plays for the Spartans on Friday nights.

Longtime assistant Justin Alumbaugh replaces the legendary Ladouceur and has a well-stocked team for his first year on the job. The De La Salle offense is particularly talented and experienced.

QB Chris Williams, coming off a fine 2012 postseason when the Spartans won a fourth straight Open Division state championship, is back to lead the veer.

He should have ample time to throw with a massive and athletic offensive line in front of him. Sumner Houston, Larry Allen III and Drew Sullivan are returning starters up front.

The defense has more question marks as the Spartans move on without the four Division I players who anchored last year's unit.

Arizona State-bound Dasmond Tautalatasi, who is also the team's top running back, does return at outside linebacker, and Washington State commit Kevin Griffin leads the secondary. Houston is the only returning starter on the defensive line.

The Spartans' schedule lacks a marquee national power, though it includes Servite-Anaheim and many of Northern California's top teams.

-- Stephanie Hammon

James Logan: A year after an electrifying run to the North Coast Section Division I championship game, the new-look Colts will feature a good, quick defense and Nevada-bound running back Ahki Muhammad. Another tough schedule awaits the Colts (12-2, 2012), who have two returning defensive backs and a well-schooled offensive line. They are unproven at outside linebacker. Gone are East Bay Player of the Year Warren Miles Long, a game-changer on offense and defense, dual-threat QB Jeffrey Prothro, speedy runner Damond Beasley and wideout Amalani Fukofuka, but the Colts are confident that their unified cast could be dangerous late in the season.

-- Matt Schwab

MVAL

Last year, Newark Memorial had only six returners entering the season but rolled through an undefeated Mission Valley Athletic League campaign.

This year, the Cougars have seven returning starters on each side of the ball. That includes Fred Tidwell (wide receiver) and Marty Leggett (defensive back), both of whom were first-team All-MVAL picks last season.

But new coach Ralph Meredith isn't about to forecast a title.

"I think it will come down to who stays healthy. It will be a good race," he said.

Washington is a senior-dominated team that aims to control the line of scrimmage. Moreau Catholic is led by Jason Hinton, the returning MVAL Offensive Most Valuable Player last season as a sophomore. "His biggest asset is that he has top-end speed," Moreau Catholic coach Andrew Cotter said.

American has 14 returning starters, including four on the offensive line.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Newark Memorial

-- Phil Jensen

OAL

McClymonds graduated several key players from last year's team that won the Silver Bowl and played in the Northern California small school championship game. But the Warriors, with new coach Michael Peters, do have enough talent back with senior Lavon Washington and LaVance Warren to be considered favorites once again for the league title.

Oakland Tech should be the top challenger to McClymonds, as the Bulldogs feature senior quarterback James Lewis and utility seniors Jahi Davis and LaMarr Davis. Senior Mekhi McFall anchors the young offensive and defensive lines.

Skyline is hoping to build on last season's 6-4 record and get to the Silver Bowl. Back for the Titans are linebacker/fullback Jacquese Steen and receiver/defensive back Golden Venters. Jean Claude returns at offensive line and linebacker.

Fremont nearly finished .500 last season and will be looking to finish second or third to avoid a first-round game against the No. 1 seed in the Oakland Section playoffs again. After challenging seasons, both Castlemont and Oakland appear to be back on solid footing.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: McClymonds

-- Curtis Pashelka

North Central II

The California School for the Deaf shared the league title with St. Vincent-Petaluma last season. Those teams, and Calistoga, should be in the mix once again.

CSD lost several skill players to graduation but has senior receivers Johnny Morales and Conner Baer and junior quarterback Zane Pedersen.

Stellar Prep should be much improved over last season's sophomore-heavy team that went 2-8, as both senior quarterback Cameron Burston and junior receiver/defensive back Chandler Gumbs have received Division I interest.

Emery dressed eight freshmen last season, but it will get its leadership from senior quarterback Nate Walker and tight end/defensive tackle Emmeree Robinson.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Calistoga.

-- Curtis Pashelka

TCAL-Rock

There isn't a greater favorite to win a league title in the East Bay this season than El Cerrito, which returns several skill position players from last year's 13-1 team. Back are quarterback Keilan Benjamin, receiver Jalen Harvey, linebacker D.J. Calhoun and cornerback Adarius Pickett, just to name a few.

Valley Christian has seven starters returning on both offense and defense, including Vince Volpatti, Theman Taylor and linemen Logan McHone and Sean Flynn.

Salesian will be a junior-heavy team that may go through growing pains to start the season, but the Pride does return running back DeAngelo Hernandez and lineman Tristan Castle.

St. Mary's had an up and down 2012 campaign but does return running back Lorenzo Logwood and receiver Liam Godfrey and should vie for second place.

Berean Christian has a new coach in former NFL running back James Hodgins and features running back Ethan Anderson and receiver Cole Temple.

St. Patrick-St. Vincent has a new coach in Brennan Marion, and the Bruins and Pinole Valley are looking to rebound from disappointing seasons.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: El Cerrito.

-- Curtis Pashelka

TCAL-Stone

A young Hercules team won the league title in 2012, largely behind the play of now-graduated running back Marquis Davenport. Still, those who return to the Titans have valuable experience, which should translate into another league crown.

Kennedy-Richmond also suffered losses to graduation, notably Takkarist McKinley, and again will be challenged by a small roster. Leading the Eagles will be senior linemen Jamimion Young and Sonny Fanua, and junior halfback Ernie Timateo.

John Swett made big strides last season, going from zero wins to four and narrowly missing qualification for the NCS playoffs. With a few playmakers back, including quarterback Demetrius Trim, the Indians should continue to make strides.

Albany, with new coach Steve Werren, hopes for that kind of improvement as well. The Cougars went 2-8 last season but do have quarterback Nick Sternad, lineman Skyler Forrest and linebacker Alex Oyle back in the fold.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Hercules.

-- Curtis Pashelka

WACC-FOOTHILL

The Berkeley High football team didn't allow more than 14 points to a West Alameda County Conference-Foothill Division opponent last season on the way to an undefeated record in the division.

That defensive efficiency could be the same this season. Berkeley, which will be guided by former Arroyo coach James Barnes, has a couple of outstanding linebackers in Michael Lazarus and Marlon Walker. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Lazarus, a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com, is one of the top inside linebackers in the state. Walker was named the WACC-Foothill Defensive Player of the Year last season.

Castro Valley's wing-T could again wreck havoc in the division this season, led by running back Demareyeh Lane. Encinal, which won three of its last four games in 2012, has its starting quarterback returning in Taivale Tautalatasi.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Berkeley

-- Phil Jensen

WACC-SHORELINE

Last season, the Tennyson High football team set a school record for fewest average points allowed.

This year, it might be the Lancers offense that powers it to a possible third straight winning season.

Tennyson is led by returning West Alameda County Conference-Shoreline Offensive Player of the Year Joshua Handy.

"He is the best running back that I have coached in my career," said Tennyson coach Terry Smith, who has been coaching since 1993 and has been the Lancers head coach since the 2003 season. "This could be one of our best offenses ever."

Alameda has been hit hard by graduation but has talented skill players such as Sulaiman Hameed to lead the team this season.

Mt. Eden has nine starters returning from last year's 6-5 team, including first-team All-Shoreline defensive back Lloyd Digal.

New Piedmont coach Scott Coats has brought the pistol offense.

PREDICTED CHAMPION: Tennyson

-- Phil Jensen