Corky Kell Classic version 27.0 rolls tonight, should best ever

Photo Courtesy of the AJC

The 27th annual MetroPCS Corky Kell Classic starts tonight in Rome with the first of nine games that will stretch over three days from Barron Stadium to Georgia State Stadium to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The games will be broadcasted on MyATL (Channel 36) and available on various digital media platforms which can be found at CorkyKell.com. Here are previews from each of the nine matchups:

Thursday, Aug. 16 at ROME’s BARRON STADIUM
5:30 p.m. Ridgeland vs. Calhoun
Ridgeland produced its best record (11-1) in 2017 since reaching the state finals in 2012 (13-2) and is returns a roster with leadership, athleticism and experience. Both the offense and defense dominated the competition a year ago, posting a 39.4 average margin of victory in the first-ever undefeated regular season in program history. But following an especially promising 63-7 victory to open last year’s Class AAAA state playoffs, Ridgeland’s 11-game winning streak and magical season slowed to a crawl in a 28-21 loss to Jefferson in the second round. Then, less than two months later, head coach Wesley Tankersley resigned after three years at the helm and accepted the head coaching job at Stephens County, leaving the Panthers hunting for a new head coach.

That coaching search ended on Feb. 21 as Rossville native Cortney Braswell returned to his hometown and was announced the program’s eighth head coach. Two of Braswell’s siblings and both parents went to Ridgeland High School (Rossville High School and Chattanooga Valley combined to form Ridgeland in 1989), but Braswell attended Baylor School in Tennessee.

Braswell’s hands-on approach and “100 percent responsibility, 0 percent excuses” philosophy has quickly caught on with the Panthers. Braswell has instituted other changes as well. This season, Ridgeland will abandon the traditional Wing-T offense it has been using for years, and quarterback Tanner Hill will take on a much bigger offensive role for his senior season.

“We’ll go where (Hill) goes this season,” said Braswell, “and we’ve got a special one with No. 1.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hill is expected to become more of a game manager this season, and the skill positions will see an increased role in the new system. Fred Norman Jr., who averaged a double-double on the hardwood last season, stands 6-foot-6, 295 pounds and will anchor the offense line as it transitions out of the Wing-T into the modernized offense. Ridgeland is 0-4 all-time against Hal Lamb’s Yellow Jackets and lost 37-0 the last time it opened the season against Calhoun (2013).

After collecting its third state title under head coach Hal Lamb (2011, 2014, 2017) last season, Calhoun’s loaded roster will attempt to clinch back-to-back titles for the first time in school history this year.

“We feel like we’ve got a really good nucleus returning for us,” said Lamb. “I’d say we probably have 90 percent of our skill guys back, which is always good. We’ve got to find a few linemen and some linemen need to step up, but we feel good about our kids coming back.”

Starting quarterback Gavin Gray decided not to play baseball this year and was able to go through spring practice after missing it in 2017. Star linebacker Davis Allen committed to Clemson this summer to play tight end, but he is also the starting middle linebacker at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds.

“We are very honored to be in the Corky Kell Classic,” said Lamb. “There is a lot of tradition with the Corky Kell games. We’ve tried to get in the last several years and finally the door opened for us this year. And it is the opportunity to play a very good Ridgeland team.”

Lamb was an offensive coordinator for Upson-Lee when the Knights appeared in the 1995 (McEachern 9, Upson-Lee 7) and 1996 (Marietta 49, Upson-Lee 7) edition of the Corky Kell Classic. The last time Calhoun lost in a season opener was 2008, but still, Lamb is hoping to see his team start stronger than in years past.

“We’ve got to come out of the gate a little faster than we have in the past and that’s something we’ve talked about,” said Lamb. “Our whole goal here at Calhoun High School is to peak at playoff time, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to play well the first week or two of the season. We have to play even better than we have in the past and hopefully we can do that on Aug. 16.”

8:30 p.m. Rome vs. Marietta
Last year’s Rome team looked more like the product of a football dynasty than a team looking to defend the only state title in its program’s history. But whatever the mission might have been, Rome was both successful and utterly unstoppable in achieving it. The Wolves’ obliteration of the competition last season engraved an average margin of victory of 41.3 points into a flawless 15-0 record. Head coach John Reid’s defense had a pass rush spearheaded by Georgia signee Adam Anderson that made any passing play seem like a gamble; the group produced 114.5 tackles for loss on the year. Offensively, quarterback Knox Kadum already led the team to a state title as a sophomore and was back making even better decisions and plays as a junior. And fellow juniors Jamious Griffin (accounted for 28 of the team’s 68 rushing touchdowns) and Xavier Roberts (caught 11 of the team’s 22 touchdown receptions), provided an offensive balance that made Rome the highest scoring team in the entire state.

Winning back-to-back state titles has provided Reid with an abundance of championship experience and the focus this offseason has been on creating more depth around it. Anchoring the offensive line is Aiden Gaines, a rising junior who coach Reid calls the best center in the state. At right tackle is Quantavious “Tic” Leslie, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound rising junior, who, like Gaines, can get to the second level and turn quick screens into explosive track meets.

The Marietta Blue Devils advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1994 last season, and with the majority of starters returning, they are equipped to make another run toward the Class 7A crown this year. Head coach Richard Morgan arrived at the school in 2016 and has seen a quick transformation. Quarterback Harrison Bailey stepped into the starting job as a freshman in Morgan’s first year, and threw for 2,812 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Marietta’s challenging region, however, left the Blue Devils out of the playoffs at 3-7. It wasn’t until last season that all the right pieces began falling into place. Class of 2020 superstar athlete Arik Gilbert (The nation’s No. 1 ranked athlete for his class) transferred over from Woodward Academy, where he had played sparingly as a freshman, and he contributed as a tight end and pass rusher to an already productive passing game and defensive line. UGA signee Azeez Ojulari (31 tackles for loss) and his younger brother B.J. Ojulari (19 tackles for loss) were forces up front, combining for 50 of the team’s 87 tackles for loss. Receiver Ramel Keyton proved to be one of the state’s most productive receivers with his 16 touchdown receptions and may be in store for an even bigger senior season.

Bailey started the first three games of Marietta’s 2017 season but missed the next seven after suffering an injury in the fourth quarter of the team’s 24-20 win over Pebblebrook (Bailey threw for a career-high 464 yards in the game). Marietta went 3-4 in its next seven games and entered the postseason as the At Large team with a 6-4 record. Bailey returned in the playoffs, leading Marietta past Westlake 34-7 in the first round, Woodstock 38-28 in the second round, but they’d fell in a 51-41 shootout to eventual state champion North Gwinnett in the quarterfinals. In his six combined starts last season, Bailey finished 126-of-203 passing (62 percent) for 1,824 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. His five-touchdown performance against North Gwinnett was his only loss (before forfeits expunged all 2017 victories to make it an 0-13 season).

Morgan is not afraid to let his star quarterback take over games; Bailey attempted more than 40 passes in three of his six starts last season. There’s no telling what type of numbers a healthy Bailey and Keyton could put up this season, but one thing is for sure: The Marietta offense wants to air it out and sent a message this June with an undefeated run to the Corky Kell 7-on-7 title. Focus on bulking up the offensive line to protect Bailey has also been a theme of the offseason; he was sacked eight times in the Pebblebrook game last season.

Friday, Aug. 17, at GEORGIA STATE STADIUM
5:30 p.m. Buford vs. Tucker
Buford has been toppled by two-time defending Class AAAAA state champion Rome in each of the last two postseasons (2016, 16-7 in Finals; 2017, 45-7 in Semifinals), but the Gwinnett-based Wolves’ star-powered roster this season projects them as one of of the classifications strongest contenders. The Buford program boasts 10 state titles since 2001, 15 final appearances since 2000 and 19 consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories. John Ford’s group went 11-2 last season, in what marked his first year at the school. The Wolves graduated another strong senior class this past season, highlighted by running backs Anthony Grant (FSU) and Christian Turner (Michigan) along with safety Bryson Richardson (UNC), wide receiver Isaiah Issac (Wake Forest) and outside linebacker Brock Mattison (Appalachian State), but their Class of 2019 is once again loaded, especially on the line of scrimmage. Center Harry Miller (6-4, 310) is a four-star prospect and has 3-star guard Riley Simonds (6-3, 300) and 3-star tackles Reece McIntyre (6-5, 290) and Carter Colquitt (6-6, 295) helping him anchor one of the most talented (and biggest) offensive lines in the nation.

Running back Derrian Brown will play a much bigger role this season after splitting carries with Grant, Turner and the rest of Buford’s deep and talented stable of backs last season. Three-star defensive end Ahmad Craig stands 6-foot-6, 240 pounds and has a chance to shoot up the recruiting boards. Class of 2021 superstar quarterback Aaron McLaughlin is back after taking over the starting job as a freshman last year.

Head coach Bryan Lamar’s senior-laden Tucker team fell to Coffee 14-3 in the 2017 Class AAAAAA semifinals and the Tigers are looking to fill some big shoes in 2018, including tackles Dylan Wonnum and Terrell Paxton on the offensive line.

“Offensively we’ve got to find two tackles,” said Lamar. “If we get that we’ll be in great shape. Our center is back, he’s a three-year starter, Dominique Boyd, a really talented kid, and the other is still in the evaluation process.”

Also wide receiver Josh Vann graduated after putting up 1,022 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Isaiah Dunson is the primary target returning after hauling in 215 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns last season. Replacing Taurean Taylor at running back will be another challenge; Taylor finished his senior season with 1,236 yards and found the end zone 15 times. Expected to take control of the backfield will be the hard-running duo of rising seniors David Davis and Tyler Hughey, who can also spark plays on special teams as a return man. Davis was dominant beside Taylor in the backfield, rushing for 716 yards and scoring nine touchdowns on limited carries. Hughey saw fewer snaps, but Lamar seems to like what he sees from this small sample size.

Defensively, the Tigers graduated five linebackers this year who all went on to play college ball and altogether lost 13 starting-caliber players according to Lamar. Tucker will be without DeKalb County’s sack leader in 2017 Antonio Showers (18). Rising sophomore defensive end Dawson Rivers has incredible athleticism and is the projected leader of the pass rush. Bruce Mattox, who can play safety or cornerback, is back after missing all of 2017 with an ACL. Senior quarterback Travon Ford is back after tossing 1,616 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. The Tucker Tigers have experience to gain, but Lamar believes a strong foundation is there.

“Our sophomore class is really good,” he said. “Our senior class has some good players. We don’t have a lot of Power 5 guys, but they’re all solid players. …The teams we’ve had before like this have won. Both teams that won titles lost in the semifinals the year before and then lost everyone. Then they come back and win the whole thing the next season. We’re going to figure out how to get better every day in order to get back and be one of those teams.”

8:30 p.m. Archer vs. Milton
Archer headlined one the many surprises revealed in the state’s highest classification during the 2017 season, bouncing back from a 4-7 finish in 2016 and opening year with 12-straight victories against a slate of formidable opponents. Archer’s defense really began to peak in region play and the Tigers limited their Region 8 opponents Newton, Grayson, Rockdale County, South Gwinnett and Shiloh to just 5.8 points per game in route to the region crown. Offensively, quarterback Carter Peevy produced a breakout sophomore season, pacing the Tigers with 2,030 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Archer opened the playoffs with a 37-0 win over Meadowcreek and then defeated Mill Creek (for the second time of the season) 16-10 to set up a showdown with Colquitt County in the quarterfinals. Archer was able to keep the Packers offense out of the end zone, but three made field goals by Colquitt County kicker Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the unbelievable 60-yard free kick he drilled at the end of the first half, was enough to score a 12-7 victory and end the magical season.

Archer’s defensive dominance is in part due to an outstanding secondary. The group includes Andrew Booth, the nation’s No. 2 ranked cornerback prospect for the Class of 2019 and a 6-foot-1 lock down specialist. Booth’s 59 solo tackles and four interceptions during in 2017 were the second-highest on the team, while his 14 pass breakups led all Archer defenders.

On offense, Semaje Banks is expecting a big senior year after rushing for 664 yards and six touchdowns last season. Last year’s leading tackler Emmanuel Michel will take snaps at running back to provide a physical change of pace back.

Milton head coach Adam Clack had a strong first year at the school, leading the Eagles to a 9-3 record of which all three losses (South Forsyth, Walton, Brookwood) were decided by a touchdown or less. Milton is returning a trio of highly ranked senior prospects, including 3-star quarterback Jordan Yates, 3-star linebacker Allen Walker and Clemson commit Joseph Charleston, a 6-foot-2 safety. Additionally, rising junior Paul Tchio is a 4-star offensive tackle that is a force in the trenches at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds. The intensity Clack wants from his team starts with the offense.

“We’re going to play with tempo on offense,” said Clack. “A lot of urgency in everything that we do. Everything has an urgency to it. Not that we didn’t do that before, but we have our own unique way of achieving that.”

When it comes to the run game, the Eagles will undoubtedly have a hard time replacing their No. 1 back Solomon Vanhorse this season. Vanhorse was a steamroller, rushing for 1,250 yards on 192 attempts and scoring 10 touchdowns. The next back in line was Ahmad Echols, who rushed 23 times for 90 yards during his sophomore season. While the running back group took a hit, the most impressive runner on the team is still Yates. Last season, the quarterback rushed 144 times for 1,044 yards and nine touchdowns. When the two-year starter wasn’t taking off downfield, he let his passing do the job and finished with 2,011 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. There is experience and athleticism leading Milton this year and Clack says the 2018 season will be about fundamentals, urgency and effort, a combination he hopes will produce more turnovers and better red-zone execution.

“It’s all about fundamental football,” he said. “It’s about playing with urgency and effort. At the end of the day you have to protect the football and take it away from the other team. We want to create more turnovers this year. We want to focus on red-zone production. We want to punch the ball in as much as possible. I just want them to enjoy the game and embrace their role on the team, whatever it is. If we do that and put the team first, everything else will take care of itself.”

Saturday, Aug. 18, at MERCEDES-BENZ STADIUM
9 a.m. Kell vs. East Coweta
Kell’s Brett Sloan enters his second season as a head coach confidence that, following a year of building his system, his players feel more comfortable in the day-to-day workings and will be ahead of the curve. Still, Sloan admits that the Longhorns will likely rely heavily on eight returning starters on the defensive side of the ball while the younger offense is built around starting quarterback Evan Conley.

“Defensively, we are returning eight starters,” Sloan said. “So we are going to lean on that side of the ball for a little while, I think. We have a good returning corps at the linebacker spot that I think will be led by Branson Hall. He was a sophomore who, I feel, was one of our most consistent linebackers last year.”

Defensive lineman Andrew Parlato was named second-team all-region last year as a sophomore and senior Just Holt returns to his defensive end position where the Longhorns utilize his quickness to disrupt offenses.

With only three returning starters on offense, Kell will depend on Conley to lead the charge. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior was 179-of-285 passing for 2,240 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, adding four rushing touchdowns.

“It’s just his experience,” Sloan said of his quarterback. “He has started every game of his high school career except one. … There’s just no situation that Evan hasn’t seen and no situation that he hasn’t been in. Just that calming presence and that experience is going to be big for us as we grow some of our younger players up on that side of the ball.”

One of Conley’s targets will be senior Sammy Blancato. The 5-10, 170-pound receiver caught 19 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns last season. Sloan is excited to see Blancato’s numbers swell in his senior season.

After starting the 2017 season 4-1 through their first five games, a young East Coweta went 1-4 in region action and missed the playoffs in what marked former South Gwinnett coach John Small’s first year at the school.

“When I got here, they had graduated 11 starters on defense and nine backups,” Small said. “So depth on defense was not very good. We had a lot of good young players and 27 seniors last year, but only six of them played. We were a very young football team and we were saying that we were going to play a ton of kids and whatever happens, happens.”

Lots of experience returns, however, the starting quarterback job has remained open this offseason following Christian Reid’s graduation, leaving a three player battle between senior Nate Cronic, junior Devin Gelband and sophomore Gabe Gray. Whoever wins the job will have a solid cast to surround them, including Gerald Green, a 5-10, 190-pound senior running back who rushed for over 900 yards as a junior and totaled more than 20 touchdowns, including three kickoff returns for touchdowns. Senior Riley Jewett, a 6-3, 270-pound offensive linesman, started as a tackle last year and will also be showing at the guard position this year.

Senior Ron Pettaway, a 6-2, 275-pound offensive lineman, started 10 games as a junior, giving him critical experience up front. An experienced receiver corps also returns with senior Brayden Carey (6-1, 185) and juniors J.J. Freed (6-3, 175) and Rakiyan Moss (5-8, 140). Defensively, the Indians return around 20 players who have substantial playing time from last year.

“We feel like we are returning a good number of kids with experience,” Small said. “And then the kids have had a year under their belt to really buy in to what we are doing on a daily basis and we are really excited about this group of kids. How good are they going to be? I don’t know. But they’re going to play hard and they are fun to coach.”

11:45 a.m. Mill Creek vs. Walton
Last year, Mill Creek opened its season with a 23-19 victory over McEachern in the Corky Kell Classic. The Hawks went on to finish the regular season 7-3 and defeated West Forsyth 29-14 before falling to Region 6 Rival Archer for the second time of the season in the second round 16-10. This year, Mill Creek will need young talent to step up. For head coach Shannon Jarvis, that’s just business as usual.

“We are going to have a lot of youth and inexperience on our team,” said Jarvis. “But, really, we have that every year going into the first game. Usually, we are going to graduate some pretty good players, but we are also fortunate to replace them with some pretty good players. It’s just how quickly they’ll adjust to it.”

The Hawks return six starters on offense and have used the offseason to stage a battle for the starting quarterback job. According to Jarvis, there were several players vying for the spot, but senior Caden Cullen and sophomore M.J. Patterson were the two frontrunners. Cullen attempted just six passes last year, but accounted for 62 yards and a touchdown while adding 15 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns in his limited action.

Returning receiving and rushing leader Parker Wroble, who rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown on 25 touches and caught 18 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-foot-8, 163-pound junior rotated through the lineup last year before settling down. This season, look for him to be in the backfield a bit more.

On defense, Mill Creek returns four starters with Austin Ruiz-Velasco the anchor. The 5-11, 225-pound all-region DE/OLB tallied 52 solo tackles and 29 assists with seven tackles for a loss, six sacks, 11 quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries last year.

Defensive end Myles Jackson is back after registering 29 solo tackles and 29 assists with six tackles for a loss, three sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Defensive back Jacob Allen had 42 solo tackles and 16 assists with 11 tackles for a loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries and an interception.

In Daniel Brunner’s first season at the helm of Walton, the Raiders defeated eventual state champion North Gwinnett 31-28 in the Corky Kell Classic, posted the most points per game (38.17) in school history and went 11-0 before falling 28-21 to Colquitt County.

The Raiders return the core of guys that led this incredible run, including quarterback and Nevada-commit Austin Kirksey. Georgia-commit and five-star wide receiver Dominick Blaylock and Kendall Alford, who caught 35 passes for 600 yards last year lead the Radiers’ aerial attack. In the backfield D.J. Soyoye is back after rushing for 1,193 yards during his breakout junior season. Senior David Sobek and junior Walker Hurst will be looked upon to fill the holes on the offensive line and keep the Raiders’ offense well-balanced.

On defense, key players also return and it will be seniors CB Mikey Farr, LB Malik Adams, CB B.J. Gibson, DB Weston Gurr and DB Drew Michalek serving as leaders on this side of the ball. Two players with Ivy League potential anchor the defensive back position, and according to Brunner, they can hit hard.

“Another couple of guys that are three-year starters that are back for us are Drew Michalek and Weston Gurr,” said Brunner. “We call them the Pixie Bros. and they pack a punch, buddy. They’re Ivy League type kids, that’s where their interest is right now and where they’re getting looked at.”

A late addition to the team is also poised to make a strong impression this season, according to Brunner.

“We have a defensive end, Trey Middleton, who moved in at the middle of the year, in January. He’s had a tremendous offseason with us and we are expecting big things out of him as well.”

2:45 p.m. McEachern vs. Colquitt County
McEachern graduates 18 players after making a resounding run to last year’s state semis. The Indians opened the 2017 season with a 23-19 loss to Mill Creek in the Corky Kell Classic at Georgia State Stadium and the next week it fell to Grayson 12-7. McEachern responded by reeling off seven wins in a row, before falling to Hillgrove in the final game of the regular season 14-7 and taking the No. 2 seed into the playoffs.

Entering the playoffs, the Indians moved past Etowah 39-7 and then defeated the No. 1 team in the state, Lowndes, 36-31. Their 43-28 victory over Parkview in the quarterfinals set up a semifinal game with eventual state champion North Gwinnett. McEachern fell short 38-17, but the experience for its younger players last season will be paramount this year, especially for quarterback Carlos Delrio-Wilson who started all four playoff games last year and led the charge over Lowndes in an incredible second half comeback that kept the season alive.

The McEachern offense also returns two-time all-state running back Paris Brown, who rushed for 1,182 yards on 187 carries with 14 touchdowns in 2017. Delrio-Wilson’s targets in 2018 will be Javon Baker, Brandon Christy and Valerian Agbaw. Baker, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound four-star is considered the No. 20 ranked receiver in the nation for the Class of 2020.

The offensive line is anchored by guard Nyles Moore, center Mark Bennett and versatile Taylor Hogan-Beck. On the defensive line, tackles Jeffrey Clark (5-11, 275) and Jamil Burroughs (6-2, 280) are built to stop the run. Myles Henderson, a part-time pass-rush specialist in 2017, will be back to factor in this year. Nassir Curry-Sudler adds agility to the defensive backfield and has several big offers. Stephen Benn is an emerging linebacker and a solid special-teams player. Isaiah Byrd and Nathaniel Dent will return in the defensive backfield. Arinze Okwu, a 5-11, 214-pound linebacker, will also factor in on the defensive side.

Head coach Rush Propst led Colquitt County led the Packers to the fourth championship appearance of his tenure (2008-present), but came up short 19-17 to North Gwinnett, evening out his all-time record in GHSA championship games to 2-2.

Last year’s Packers scored a narrow 20-17 win over Norcross in the Corky Kell Classic and carried that momentum through the next three games before falling to Brookwood 43-25 on the road. The Packers struggled to score wins against their ultra-talented four-team region and fell to Tift County and Lowndes to close their regular season 7-3 as the No. 3 seed. The run to the finals, which was played entirely on the road, marked the Packers’ 32nd postseason victory in just the last nine seasons.

This year, Colquitt replaces Steven Krajewski, who passed for 2,395 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 199 yards and 13 touchdowns. But one the most potent running back combos in the state, however, is going to be back. Ty Leggett (5-foot-10, 172 pounds) is back after posting 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 carries and will have the No. 1 Class of 2020 running back prospect in the state joining him in Daijun Edwards, who racked up 1,038 yards and 13 touchdowns on 176 carries in 2017.

The receiver corps will need to fill the void left by Cam Singletary’s graduation. Last year, Singletary caught 79 passes for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns. Three rising seniors could help fill the spot — K.T. Wilson caught 24 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns last year. Marvion McDonald had 19 catches for 230 yards and two touchdowns, and Josh Hadley caught 16 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns.

On a defense that Propst believes can be one of the best he’s had since taking over the program, is rising senior Rashad Revels, a 6-0, 183-pound linebacker who made 104 solo tackles with 97 assists for 201 total tackles last year. Marcus Anderson, a 5-11, 200-pound middle linebacker, made 82 solo tackles with 66 assists for 148 total tackles. Corners Jay Ward and NyQuann Washington and lock down defenders on the outside.

“I think defensively we are as deep as we’ve ever been,” said Propst. “We have guys everywhere. It’s really a pleasure to have what we’ve got, athletes all over the field.”

5:45 p.m. Brookwood vs. North Gwinnett
Last year’s Brookwood team won 11 straight games after starting 0-2, won Region 7-AAAAAAA and reached the semifinals for the eighth time in school history. But after the 31-14 loss to Colquitt County (a team they defeated earlier in the season) that kept them out of the state title game, head coach Philip Jones enters his fourth-year at the helm facing the challenge of losing 20 starters and 19 signed players from last year’s tight-knit senior class.

It will be a new-look offense without two of the top weapons in the state last season and a quarterback who broke the school’s all-time passing record. Three-year QB starter Angelo DiSpigna, headed to Mercer to play baseball, gives way to a position battle featuring two seniors and two sophomores. Seniors Griffin Jamison and Conner Chavis and sophomores Caleb Ellard and Jack Spyke are all in the mix.

Jones likes the potential of the offensive line, which will be anchored by the only returning starter on that side of the ball, junior center Aidan Perkins. Joining him will be likely starters Sean Hill (Jr., LT), Mike Bell (Sr., RG) and Chase Hall (Sr., RT). A couple of players are in the mix at left guard.

Running behind them will be senior running back Chris Carter and junior Eli Kohl, which replace Dante Black, who is suiting up for UConn this fall after scoring 36 touchdowns last season.

Matthew Hill will be another big loss at wide receiver. The incoming Auburn freshman caught passes and factored in the running game in order to use his game-breaking athleticism. Now, there is a host of receivers vying for playing time. T.J. Ellis on the outside has the most experience in a Brookwood uniform, and Mekal Fuller, who was one of the top receivers at Lanier last season, will feature on the inside. Jayden Williams, Omajuwa Etiwe, Bobby Ezzard, Zac Dyer and Lorenzo Britt will all compete for snaps.

On defense, the only other returning starter on the team is senior cornerback Michael Killebrew, but corner Sterling Ross saw action and will shore up the the position. Senior Mountain View transfer Dennarrio Stewart is in line to start at strong safety, and senior Zion Pullins will start at free safety.

North Gwinnett used a last-second field goal to defeat Colquitt County 19-17 in the 2017 Class AAAAAAA state title game, giving the program and first-year head coach Bill Stewart their first championship.

There will be a new starter under center, but championship talent and experience returns up and down the roster. Class of 2019 running back Tyler Goodson ignited in last year’s playoffs, posting 724 yards and 10 touchdowns in five games and committed to Iowa this summer. Junior Devin Crosby is a budding star who rushed for over 600 yards last season as the No. 3 back behind Goodson and Cam Butler, now graduated.

At receiver, Josh Downs returns after logging over 1,000 yards last season as a sophomore. Downs combines great ball skills with quickness and good speed in the open field.

The offensive line will again be top-notch, as T.J. Skinner, Justin Bullock and Will Hamilton are physical road-graders who started nearly every game last season as juniors.

The Bulldogs will also have one of the best secondary duos in the state. Senior CB Warren Burrell and senior S Quinton Newsome are big-play guys who have offers from everyone, and they will anchor a unit that must bring several inexperienced players into the rotation. Juniors Cam Hinson and Taylor Goodson, Tyler’s younger brother, are expected to step into larger roles, as is senior Zach Mollette. But the overall depth and talent are there for the secondary to carry the defense as the front seven tries to cover heavy losses from graduation.

8:45 p.m. Norcross vs. Mays
In 2017, Norcross produced a 5-6 record and fell in the first-round to Grayson and this year will be about finishing and proving that Norcross can win the close game.

Head coach Keith Maloof says the senior class isn’t quite as large as last year’s, but there is a good mix of veterans and players seeking more experience. The Blue Devils have about roughly 11 players with significant starting experience—six on offense, five on defense. Maloof elected to play an intrasquad scrimmage at the end of spring rather than take on another team, in order to evaluate more of his own players

Louis Williams is the point man on offense. The senior had a strong junior campaign, and the 6-foot-5 signal-caller “solidifies our offense,” according to Maloof. Williams will have plenty of weapons to choose from among his offensive skill players. Back are top receivers Christian Sims and Isaiah Wilson, both seniors. Running back Kam Jackson is back as a senior after getting some good touches his junior year, and Lance Jackson is a senior transfer who played at North Gwinnett previously and will also contribute at running back.

On the O-line, Zarritt Mumphery will be the leader of the squad. Quinton Bradford, Micah Green and others will be in line for starting spots, and Maloof said 10 players could see big minutes during the season. Defensively, Maloof sees six key players and a lot of moving parts behind them, especially in the secondary, but middle linebacker and tackling machine Christian Wright will be the centerpiece. Senior cornerback Randy Cochran has the most experience returning in the secondary, but sophomore Josh Graham will also factor into the unit and will get some time at slot receiver as well as handling much of the return duties on special teams. Amani Johnson and Roland Jackson are the names to watch at strong safety.

In 2017, Mays again dropped its opener to Stockbridge before winning 11 straight, losing to eventual champion Lee County in the quarters. Now third-year head coach, Niketa Battle will lead a mix of inexperience and veteran leadership this season after sending 20 players on to the next level, losing roughly 18 starters and just shy of 40 seniors from last year.

The Raiders offense will start with senior Jahquez Evans, who will get the majority of the snaps at quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound multi-threat athlete makes quick decisions in the Raiders offense, which relies on zone read and run-pass option primarily, with mostly short passes. Tyree Nelson will get the bulk of the carries at running back, and the junior has been on the varsity team since he was a freshman. Jaylen Dunson is a jack-of-all-trades for the Raiders. On offense, he will get touches at running back, receiver and even quarterback and can also handle much of the return duties on special teams along with placekicking and punting.

Mays replaces its top four receivers from last season, but its fifth option in 2017, Terrence Morton, is a talented 6-foot junior.

On the offensive line, a trio of seniors will be the anchors. Kelvin Dennis started every game at center last season but will move to left tackle this year. Winston Muckle steps in at center after playing mostly guard, and Aquavious Asberry will man the right tackle spot. Kamden Dobbs is a 6-2, 270-pound junior who will likely start at left guard with Caleb Wimberly at right guard. The defense only returns one starter, senior CB Montileco Edwards, who was the team’s best cover man last year. The linebackers aren’t big, but they are agile and make good decisions, Battle says. There should be good depth starting with MLB Da’shawn Dixon, the team’s best tackler. Latravious Murray will start at SAM, and Brandon Potts will man the WILL spot. Two other players will rotate in the defense’s hybrid SS/OLB spot. On the line, Battle plans to use a deep rotation to keep his players fresh for the playoffs. Dentavius Roberson is a converted linebacker at 6-2, 220 who will be a vocal leader at defensive end.