North Gwinnett looked as if it would fall just short in its second-ever championship game and remain without a state title trophy. The Bulldogs were trailing Colquitt County 17-16 in the Class AAAAAAA title game after Cam Clark’s missed extra point and Colquitt’s touchdown with 49 seconds left. But North Gwinnett moved the ball with several big plays, and then a series of costly Colquitt penalties ended up giving Clark a chance at redemption on an untimed down. Clark came through with a 38-yard field goal to give the program its first title.
“We felt like we got ourselves in a position to win the thing, and like we did all year, we finished in the fourth quarter,” said Bill Stewart, who won the championship in his first year at the school.
Now it’s a new era for North Gwinnett football with a trophy in the case and a mix of established stars and new talent back on the field.
“It was a great spring,” Stewart said. “We’ve gotten stronger, faster throughout the offseason.”
Both Stewart and assistant Jeff Carlberg are quick to praise the improved strength of their players, and Carlberg credits head strength coach R.J. Luke’s program for those gains. The Bulldogs’ spring culminated with a game against neighborhood program Lanier.
Even though there will be a new player under center, the Bulldogs have many returning weapons on offense. Gone now are Cade Fortin and Jimmy Urzua at quarterback; Urzua, a D-II Mars Hill signee, took the reins of the offense after Fortin, headed to North Carolina, went down with injury in the second game of the year and could not return. Now, two juniors—Brian McGlynn and J.R. Martin—and one senior—William Goldring—are battling it out for the starting job.
The running back tandem will be scary-good. Senior Tyler Goodson exploded with his performances throughout the playoffs, rushing for 724 yards and 10 touchdowns in five games to start attracting the recruiting attention of the powerhouses. 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.
“Obviously Tyler is getting all the attention, and deservedly so, he’s our bell cow,” Stewart said. “But Devin Crosby is definitely going to be critical. He’s really good.”
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. Behind him, the brother combo of Javonni (Sr., also handles return duties) and Jarvis Cunningham provides athletic talent. Junior Dalton Pearson could be set for a breakout year, and three seniors—Riley Walker, Garrison Manor and Bryce Fowler—will provide depth.
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.
On defense, the Bulldogs sport one of the most talented secondary duos in the state. Senior cornerback Warren Burrell and senior safety 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.
“Both of them are recruited by everybody, but they’re also great leaders,” Stewart said of Burrell and Newsome. “They have taken the bull by the horns in our secondary and on the defense as far as being leaders. And so I’m really proud of them as far as what they’re doing.”
The linebacking corps loses Jayden McDonald, now at Iowa, and Jake Stewart, the head coach’s son who joins Urzua at Mars Hill. Senior Nick Pucciarello started last season and will anchor the unit this fall, while classmates J.D. Davis and Will Hunter will see increased roles. Major Carlberg, the assistant’s son, will be in the rotation as well.
The defensive line will be inexperienced but has loads of potential. The Bulldogs lost three very good starters off last year’s line, but senior Bryson Scruggs returns as a starter on the outside. Jared Ivey could be ready for a breakout after getting spot duty as a sophomore; Ivey is 6-foot-6, 225 pounds with athleticism. Trey Williams and Chuck Smith, the son of the former Falcons Pro Bowl defensive end, will also contribute on the outside. On the inside, Chris Miles, Brayden Rouse, Malik Blue and others are fighting for snaps.
“I feel like we got a good rotation in our spring game and we’ve got eight guys there that can play at any given point, and that’s what you’re going to need in this league trying to compete,” Stewart said of his front four. “So I feel like we have some depth there. It’s new depth, but I think we have some guys that can do it.”
On special teams, Clark, the hero of the 2017 title game, is back at kicker and could handle punting duties as well.
NORTH GWINNETT’S 2018 SCHEDULE
8/18 Brookwood (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
9/01 vs. Wekiva, FL (Milton)
9/28 @Mountain View
10/05 Mill Creek
10/12 @Collins Hill
10/26 @Peachtree Ridge