You don't have to remind Allen Huddleston how important his role is this year.
The senior believes -- as do most observers -- that his play at quarterback will determine whether or not Merced lives up to the hype and its lofty preseason ranking.
"I feel the quarterback is the nucleus of a team," Huddleston said. "It's like a point guard in basketball or a pitcher in baseball.
"Everything revolves around the quarterback."
Huddleston will get his first start behind center tonight when Merced opens the season at Merced College against Madera (0-1).
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:15 p.m.
Other key games include Atwater playing at Chuckchansi Park against Fresno Bullard (0-1), Los Banos (1-0) at Tracy and Sierra at Buhach Colony (1-0).
After playing quarterback through Merced's lower levels, Huddleston was used almost exclusively as a receiver and defensive back last season.
"There's no question (Huddleston) is a big key," said Merced coach Rob Scheidt.
"He's a great athlete. We want to put him in good situations to make plays and secure the football."
Huddleston will likely be without one of his top weapons in Bernard Bolden.
Merced's do-everything senior sprained an ankle in last week's scrimmage against Modesto and hasn't practiced all week.
"I don't think he'll play," Scheidt said. "We'll just keep evaluating him and see how he is."
It's because of players like Bolden, running back Stephon Mathis, tight end Kenny Cooper and defensive end Nathan Mayfield that Merced comes into this season ranked 20th in the state by ESPN-CalHiSports.
"Nothing has been earned yet, that's the issue," Scheidt said. "We have guys coming back that we know that can play.
"Can they play with this group of guys now? You can't duplicate a football team. This is a brand new team."