KILGORE -- If only one word was permitted in describing the Kilgore football program, "physical" would likely be the word brought up most often.

So forgive Bulldogs coach Mike Wood and his players if they're less than thrilled about being forced to play football in T-shirts and shorts. It seems as if the excitement of being back on the football field has worn off after just three days.

Friday is the day when Kilgore officially goes back to its roots.

"We've been in shorts, and there's a lot of things we can get done in shorts, but to be the type football team we want to be we need to be in pads," Wood said following Wednesday's practice. "We've got a lot of questions on this football team and a lot of holes to fill, and we're going to be able to answer those questions, hopefully, in pads."

But for now, the Kilgore players are spending their time sharpening up skills and getting back into playing shape -- an important part of the process as well.

"Everybody's giving great effort and being physical without pads," said Kilgore senior running back Kevrin Justice. "You've got to do what you can without them, you've got to get better. The shoulder pads will get here when they get here. We're just going to continue to work until the day comes."

Kilgore head coach Mike Wood address his team following practice Aug. 6 in Kilgore (ETSN.fm)

Justice (6-0, 180) is one of just five offensive returning starters from last season's Class 3A Division I state runner-up. He led Kilgore with 1,966 rushing yards 36 touchdowns despite splitting carries with Davieonta "JuJu" Brown, who graduated.

"Kevrin's a great running back and we're hoping to shore up the offensive line a little bit and create some holes for him," Wood said. "We know what Kevrin can do with the ball, but by the same token, we're going to lean on him probably more this year than ever. It's great to know that he's going to be back there, but we've simply got to build this football team around him offensively, and hopefully get to where we can put some points on the board."

Kilgore will need to find replacements on offense for Brown, receiver Aaron Foy (Navarro College), lineman Clay Wiley (Northwestern State) and quarterback Benny Colbert (Texas A&M-Commerce) -- all huge contributors to the Bulldogs' run to the state title game.

"I need to be more of a leader than I was last year, because now coming into my senior year I understand there's a lot of people looking at me and expecting me to do a lot," Justice said. "And I plan on doing that. We've got a lot of young guys and If they need help with something, I've got to step up and be a leader."

Kilgore may have been hit even harder on the defensive side of the ball where the Bulldogs are busy trying to find eight new starters. The heart and soul of its defense the previous two years had been the D-line combo of Ladarrin Anthony and D.Q. Scott, who are now both set to enter their freshman year of college.

And while senior defensive end Jordan Thompson may not have started last season, he saw plenty of action and will be a key figure up front for the Bulldogs this season. Thompson (6-1, 191) shined at the second annual ETSN.fm + APEC Recruiting Combine in Tyler on June 1, running a laser-timed 4.43 40-yard dash, which was tied for third-fastest out of the 115 participants.

"Jordan's got a lot of experience, he's played on the defensive line the last two years for us," Wood said. "We rotate those kids quite a bit, and I feel like Jordan is almost like a returning starter. We're going to lean on him. We've got some kids there that may not have been the starters at the first of the games, but had a lot of snaps for us in the 15 games we played last year."

Wood believes that because he does have players like Justice and Thompson returning to the team after having played for a state championship the experience may naturally rub off on the newcomers.

"You get another five or six weeks of practice with those kids," he said. "During that time we're working those kids, they're getting reps and they're getting better. They know what it takes to get to that point and they know it's their time to step up, some of them."

Kilgore DE Jordan Thompson. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)

Justice, so far, is the only Kilgore player committed to play football beyond high school, having pledged to Houston back in April. He visited the campus last week, and came away impressed, especially with the Cougars' new $120 million stadium that officially opens later this month.

"Oh, I love it," he said. "I went down and took a visit last Friday, and it was great. The new stadium, new turf … everything just looked great, and it felt good knowing that I'm going to be able to play on it. It feels just like home."

But for now, Justice calls Kilgore home. And there are a few things he'd like to accomplish before leaving town.

"I just want them to know that Kevrin Justice did what he could for Kilgore football, that's the main thing," Justice said of how he would like to be remembered in Kilgore. "I don't do this for myself, I do it for my community. That's what we get coached to do, represent our community and what we're proud of. That's how I want to leave … that Kevrin Justice did a lot for his community."

And as for using that 34-23 loss in the state title game to new District 9-4A Division I foe and longtime rival Carthage as motivation for this year, Wood's not buying it.

"We don't talk about it, that was last season," the coach said. "We're not going to win any games because of what happened last year. This football team's going to have to find its own identity, and we're going to have to be able to build this football team with the same goal as every football team, and that's playing in December. But we're a long way away from that right now; we're worried about two scrimmages and Nacogdoches being our first game."

Kilgore scrimmages Atlanta at home on Aug. 15, followed by another scrimmage at Gilmer on Aug. 21. The Bulldogs being the regular season Aug. 29 at Nacogdoches.

Kilgore coach Mike Wood speaks to the media after his team's 34-23 loss to Carthage in the Class 3A Division I state championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Dec. 20, 2013.. (Christopher R. Vinn, ETSN.fm)