CARTHAGE -- Carthage was back in the business of deep playoff runs in 2015 following a one-year hiatus.

And Bulldogs coach Scott Surratt is hoping more is to come this season.

"We had a subpar year the season before but we finished strong," he said following his team's first official workout Monday morning. "And then last year we battled lots of injuries. No excuses around here, it’s next man up. But we did battle a lot of key injuries, and we played very well.”

Carthage, a four-time state champion under Surratt, managed to reach its sixth state semifinal in eight seasons last year, falling to eventual champion Waco La Vega.

Twelve starters return for the Bulldogs in 2016, which made the first day of practice easier for Surratt and his coaching staff.

“We came in, in really good shape," he said. "We had real good numbers come out, and I thought it went pretty smoothly. It never goes as smoothly as you want it the first day. We’re just trying to get all the fundamental stuff in, and there’s a lot of competition right now for some spots. And that’s what it’s all about.”

No matter what the returning numbers are year to year, expectations in Carthage are consistent.

“In 2008 our goal was to own our district, and when we won (state) in 2008 then the bar is set up there at the state championship, and that’s got to be your goal every year once you win one," Surratt said.

Carthage graduated two-year starter Jarod Blissett, who set the school's single-season record with more than 4,000 passing yards as a senior. The quarterback job now belongs to senior Kason Davis.

“He’s more confident and more comfortable in our system," Surratt said of Davis. "He was a move-in — I hired his dad as offensive coordinator — three years ago when he was a sophomore. His leadership ability and skills have really come on. He’s loud, and you can tell who the man is right now. He’s got great talent, there’s no doubt about his talent. He can throw the football and he can run.”

Davis should be able to rely on a strong offensive line anchored by senior Tanner Elliott and a running game led by junior Keaontay Ingram, who emerged in the playoffs last season as a legitimate playmaker.

Despite Carthage's propensity to air it out, the running game must show significant improvement in 2016 if the Bulldogs hope to maintain their edge on offense.

“We’ve got to be able to run the ball in big games," Surratt said. "You look at the games we got beat last year, we didn’t run the ball very well. I know the game has evolved into throwing it a lot but we still want to be physical. If every game we run the ball well, we’ve got a real good shot to win."

Ingram is certainly a key in turning the rushing department around.

“We’ve got to get Keaontay involved, and one thing we’re looking for right now is to find a couple other tailbacks so he doesn’t have to carry the ball 30 times (per game) early," Surratt said. "Maybe when we get in district ... but we don’t want to run him and get him beat up early.”

But there's no mistaking Carthage's strength this season: its defense.

The Bulldogs return several key members from last year's unit, including senior defensive end Tre Gatlin, junior linebackers Ahmad Brown and Mykel Gates, and defensive backs Nic Moore and Mekhi Colbert.

“We’ve got to lean on that side," Surratt said of his defense. "Our linebackers are back, we’ve got a lot of experience at linebacker, and the D-line with Tre Gatlin. We’re still looking for a few players (on defense), and we’ve got a lot of competition at positions, but that’s got to be a strength or we’re going to be in trouble.”

Carthage opens the season Aug. 26 at Gladewater, and begins District 9-4A Division I action on Sept. 30 at home against arch-rival Henderson.