It’s the first significant sign football has returned.

That’s the way Silliman coach T.J. Davis views the first day of practice, which comes Thursday for his Wildcats. While Davis has seen his share of practice and season kickoffs, it’s clear there’s something about the return of the sights and sounds of hitting and blocking that stirs something within.

“It’s the most exciting time of the year,” Davis said. “Now, you’re strapping on the chinstrap and hitting. The kids have put in the time and lifted weights all summer. They’ve been waiting a long time for this. Now, the fun is in seeing how that all translates onto the field. This is it.”

For Davis’ Wildcats and crosstown neighbors Joey Sanchez and his Central Private Rebels, the anxiety and anticipation is over. Now comes the relative calm of doing what it is they and their players do: coach and play the game.

With the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools season beginning sooner than that of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, the wait for these two Central-based schools is mercifully shorter.

Aside from returning stalwarts in defensive lineman Jozie Milton and quarterback Zach Kelly, the team boasts standouts Davis will count on for both athleticism and leadership.

Jordan Talley, an offensive/defensive lineman, will now see time at tight end as well. Will Douglas, a junior linebacker/tight end returns with high expectations. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder was a first-time starter last season and also looks to get increased offensive snaps.

Add another defender-turned-offensive weapon in Darian Tunstall, a 6-foot, 220-pound middle linebacker/tight end, and it is clear Davis’ attention to both sides of the ball could be as even as ever. Beginning Thursday.

Senior Keifer Bourgeois, a starter at both cornerback and slot receiver, has been in the team’s system since seventh grade. His experience and attitude belie his 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame, Davis said.

The Wildcats open their season at home Aug. 22 against Oak Forest Academy.

“When I wake up, I’ll be thinking about practice and what we’re going to be doing,” Davis said. “I am hoping our kids will be doing that, too.”

For Sanchez, who takes over a program that has won a single game the past two seasons, this day doesn’t come a day too soon.

“It’s the beginning of the year, so everybody’s excited,” Sanchez said.

“It’s a fresh start. Everybody’s playoff bound and 0-0. With us, the wait seems even longer because the few kids we have were playing other sports in the spring and we didn’t get as much work in. ... I think I’ll probably wake up two or three times (the night before) that first practice.”

In particular, Sanchez’s focus will turn to the group of seniors he says will set an aggressive tone from the beginning. And he insisted mentioning each of them.

He reeled off the names Cole Kinchens, an offensive and defensive tackle; Dustin Torich, offensive guard; center/defensive tackle Ronnie Watkins; fullback/cornerback Cody White and running back/linebacker Johnnie Duncan.

Sanchez does so, not just to recognize seniors, he said. Each player will make significant contributions and be counted on for leadership. Duncan, an Istrouma transfer, is the lone senior not returning from last season’s winless team.

The stretch-run toward an Aug. 15 jamboree date at Louisiana College begins now, Sanchez said. The Rebels will face Acadiana Home School.

The Aug. 22 season opener will see Central Private host Riverfield Academy, a second-round playoff participant last season.

“The first day of practice, I’m looking for the kids who have that twinkle in their eye, the excitement for it,” Sanchez said. “I want to see the kids who are first in line for exercise and first after practice for that last lap. These are the kids you can count on.

“There’s a trust factor.”