By Craig Sager II
The Marietta Blue Devils advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1994 last season, and with 18 returning starters, they are equipped to make another run toward the Class 7A crown this year.
“I think the way we finished, going as far as we did, I think did a lot for the confidence of the team we’ve got coming back and just the program overall,” said head coach Richard Morgan. “We played really good football in the playoffs and you know we came a couple plays here or there away from beating North Gwinnett [in the quarterfinals], and who knows? We could’ve had a shot at winning the whole thing.”
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 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.
“From where Marietta was to where we are now is a huge difference,” said Morgan. “We’re on a huge upswing now and with 18 starters coming back, I just feel like we are in a good position right now and the kids feel good about themselves and I think we are in a good spot where we can make another big run and build this program to an elite level.”
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 victory). Marietta went 3-4 in its next seven games and entered the postseason as the At Large team with a 6-4 record, although it hardly looked like the bubble team when Bailey returned from his injury. Marietta defeated Westlake 34-7 in the first round, topped Woodstock 38-28 in the second round and then 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.
“I think the biggest thing with us is that we weren’t healthy until the playoffs hit,” said Morgan. “We lost our quarterback for seven weeks and that takes a toll on a team. Guys came together and we managed to win some games without our quarterback, but when we got him back, everything started to click again. Going into spring practice I just think these guys expect to win now. I think last year was a matter of opening their eyes, getting their confidence up. They are good enough to play with anyone and beat anyone. Now that they are starting to do it, I feel like there is a bigger belief factor in what we’ve got going on and what we’ve been teaching. I think the kids have bought into what we’ve been doing to the program, so I’m expecting this spring to be very competitive. And we have some good young players that are expecting to be there at the end.”
Morgan is not afraid to let his star quarterback take over games, and 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. As a result, the key this spring will be building an offensive line to protect Bailey, especially Week 1 against Rome in the MetroPCS Corky Kell Classic (Bailey was sacked eight times in the Pebblebrook game last year).
“One of our goals was to put together the toughest schedule we could with the best teams we could find in Georgia and also to get some national-caliber power programs on the schedule and I think we did that. Obviously, Marietta hasn’t been in the Corky Kell in 20 years, so being considered again shows that our program is starting to be noticed again. We get to play a two-time state champion with a very good quarterback coming back so obviously that is a huge challenge out of the gate to play a team of that caliber. You know, Rome might’ve been the best team in the state last year. Now it is up to us to show that we belong there. We want [our players] to be challenged so they are ready for the playoffs and ready for when they go to college. I like their attitude and I like their work ethic this offseason, and no doubt about it, Rome is as big of a challenge as there is on the schedule.”
Marietta’s spring practice will begin on Wednesday, May 2 and will conclude on May 17 at Reinhardt College with a scrimmage against Sequoyah.
“This is the most excited the kids have been in the three years that I have been here,” said Morgan. “It shows in the weight room, their workouts are enthusiastic, the team is getting so much stronger and we are so much further ahead than we were in our previous offseasons. I’ve only had two, but we are at the height of excitement and energy right now. And it’s good because it permeates the whole team, the school and through the athletic department. They can’t wait. They are looking forward to practicing, because they know that we have a chance to do a lot of special things this year.”
MARIETTA’S 2018 SCHEDULE
8/16 Rome (BA)
8/24 Good Counsel, MD
8/31 Collins Hill
9/22 At St. Johns College HS, DC (D)
10/05 North Paulding
10/12 At McEachern
10/19 North Cobb
10/26 At Hillgrove
11/02 Kennesaw Mountain