By Graham David
It’s no secret that the Buford Wolves either win it all or come oh-so-close. The program has won seven state titles since 2007, four consecutive from 2007 to 2010. For each season they failed to claim the state title in the past decade, they were surpassed in the playoffs by the future champs. The 2017 season featured a Wolves team that had the talent to go the distance, with a tremendous 38-point average per game on offense with five shutouts from the defense. But their journey to a 12th overall state title came to a halt in the semifinals of the Class AAAAA playoffs when they faced off against a juggernaut Rome team, falling 45-7 to the soon-to-be champs. Now heading into their second season under head coach John Ford, the Wolves are aiming to take their success one step further yet again.
Last year’s Wolves were led by a strong senior class, including running back/free safety Anthony Grant, running back Christian Turner and wide receiver/strong safety Matt Walton, who all signed to play college ball.
“We had a great group of seniors,” said Ford. They loved football and they loved each other. We want to see that mentality again with this group of young guys that we have coming in. The loss of Grant and Walton will leave quite a big void in our team’s offense.”
Grant, a Florida State signee, starred on both sides of the field. During his senior campaign, he logged a team-high 966 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on 125 carries. Along with his heavy production on offense, he led Buford with 96 tackles, three sacks and an interception while on defense. Turner played a key role in Ford’s debut at Buford, rushing for 128 yards on 11 carries to help fuel the Wolves’ 48-17 win over Hillgrove in the 2017 Corky Kell Classic.
While these talents may be hard to replace, early signs from other young players have Ford thinking there’s no need to worry.
“Derrian Brown is someone we’re expecting to have a big season,” said Ford. “Clayton Nelson is another player who we expect to really step up and have a big role.”
Nelson has flashed in previous seasons, catching a laser pass from back-up quarterback Will Westmoreland to continue the Wolves’ booming 56-0 victory over Cedar Shoals last season. Westmoreland connected with the shifty receiver yet again during the first round of the 2017 playoffs for a 33-yard touchdown to secure a 54-23 win. Clayton’s 6-foot, 195-pound frame gives him plenty of size to take the next steps Ford expects of him.
The Wolves will rely on their No. 1 option out of the backfield. Brown is expected to handle the majority of the work. He rushed for 799 yards on 85 carries and scored 11 touchdowns during his junior year, his best game coming against Paulding County in the first round of the 2017 postseason. Brown rushed for a whopping 150 yards on seven carries and took the ball to the house four times. Brown will look to keep up more of the same as the Wolves’ top running back his senior season.
Leading the Wolves offense will be returning sophomore quarterback Aaron McLaughlin. The second-year varsity starter has already received the attention of all of the major programs, including Auburn, Michigan, Ole Miss and USC. Standing at 6-5, McLaughlin can see the field and get excellent reads on his receivers and their coverage. His performance during last year’s Corky Kell gave him a chance to show off his skills, as he threw for 144 yards and two touchdowns in his first high school start. The dominance of the Buford run game took much of the pressure off the young quarterback. But even though the Wolves’ ground game should be strong again, McLaughlin is ready to take the Buford passing game to the next level.
“He’ll be doing a lot to prepare for this season,” said Ford. “It’s all about reps and just getting out there. We want to grow in the passing game. We want to play faster ball.”
The Wolves defense was shaken up after the loss of multiple seniors.
“Defensively, there’s a whole mess of young kids back there,” said Ford.
While many defensive starting roles won’t be solidified until preseason practice, there is one player who is sure to be a key player right out of the gates. Rising junior Jalen Huff made the move to transfer to Buford after two seasons with Athens Academy. The first-team all-state selection posted a strong sophomore season with six interceptions and 24 tackles, fueling Athens Academy’s march to its first state-championship appearance. He’ll be tasked with stepping right into the Buford defense and taking charge of the young unit.
After losing 24-7 in their first Corky Kell appearance against Roswell in 2016 — back when Ford led the powerhouse Hornets program — Buford came back from an early deficit to handle Hillgrove 48-17 last season. Now heading into the school’s third Corky Kell, Ford has nothing but appreciation and respect for his opening-day opponent, Tucker.
“We have great respect for their program,” said Ford. “We’ll have to be the best versions of ourselves to come out ahead of that one.”
BUFORD’S 2018 SCHEDULE
8/17 Tucker (Georgia State)
8/31 Deerfield Beach
9/21 at Archer
10/5 at Cedar Shoals
10/12 at Loganville
10/26 Walnut Grove
11/2 Clarke Central