2018 Class 4A Preview

The statewide reclassification that set the regions and classifications for the next two academic school years bumped two former Class AAAA teams out (Hephzibah, Jefferson) and welcomed in four new teams (Denmark, Dougherty, Flowery Branch, Hampton), bringing this year’s Class AAAA total to 54 teams.

Region 1: Americus-Sumter, Cairo, Dougherty, Carver-Columbus, Columbus, Hardaway, Northside-Columbus, Shaw, Westover

Region 1 was already the biggest in Class AAAA, and with the addition of Dougherty High School from its previous home in Region 1-AAA, this nine-team region will have just two weeks before it dives into the playoff race. Defending region champion Americus-Sumter finished 9-3 last season, falling 35-34 in overtime to Thomson in the second round and one win away from stamping double-digit victories for the first time in program history. The Panthers have big shoes to fill this season with all-state running back Kobe Lewis graduating after rushing for 21 touchdowns. Also, Erik Soliday left the program after three seasons and retired from the public school system after a 30-year coaching career to become the head coach of GISA program Tiftarea. Larry Harold will takeover for Soliday after making stops at Macon County, Brunswick and Central-Macon last season.

Newcomer Dougherty made the Class AAA playoffs last year, but with a 2-9 record, and lost 43-6 to Liberty County in the opening round. Former head coach Corey Joyner left Dougherty to replace Calvin Arnold at Carver-Columbus, which went 3-8 last year in Arnold’s only year at the school. Dougherty will be led by first-time head coach Damien Gary this season. Cairo head coach Steven Devoursney enters his fourth year with the Syrupmakers and quarterback Robert Matthew Peters will be back after taking over the starting job as a sophomore last season and so will his favorite target, Marquii Lovejoy, a two-sport athlete that finished his sophomore season with a team-high six touchdowns. Northside-Columbus head coach Morgan Ingram resigned following a successful 8-3 finish in 2017 and David Nurnberg is stepping in as head coach. Columbus has two quarterbacks with starting experience returning this year with Donavan Carter and Caleb Bailey. Hardaway returns starting quarterback Dominique Ford and running back Ja’Ron Early, who finished his junior season with seven rushing touchdowns. Shaw head coach Al Pellegrino enters year 2 after posting a 1-9 finish last season and former Creekside state championship head coach Olten Downs is taking over the Westover program, which has missed out on the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.

Region 2: Howard, Mary Persons, Perry, Spalding, Upson-Lee, West Laurens

Upson-Lee’s Justin Elder, West Lauren’s Kagan McClain and Perry’s Kevin Smith each stepped in as first-year head coaches in 2017. Elder led Upson-Lee to a 4-6 finish last season, but the Knights will feature five-star defensive tackle Travon Walker (6-foot-5, 272 pounds) in the trenches this year. McClain and West Laurens went 6-6, ultimately falling 42-31 to Woodward Academy after scoring a 14-7 first-round victory over Northside-Columbus. Smith led Perry to a 5-5 record, but after opening the season 4-1. Howard definitely overachieved last season, following its 1-9 2016 campaign with a 6-5 finish. The Huskies fell 17-14 to Mary Persons in its season finale, and then 27-14 to Americus-Sumter in the opening round. Leading Howard last season was Barney Huster, a veteran coach that led Tattnall Square Academy to 11 GISA state championships before accepting the head coaching and athletic director role at Howard. Huster left the program after last season to accept the Bibb County Athletics Director job and former Warner Robins assistant Paul Carroll was named new head coach. Howard returns eight starters on offense this year, including quarterback Quinton Sewell and running back Jeremiah Kelly who accounted for more than 1,200 rushing yards last year.

Mary Persons swept the region a year ago and has tremendous talent returning to a roster that went 11-3 and reached its second-straight final four. The Bulldogs’ first loss came in its opener (21-17) against eventual Class AAAAAA state champion Lee County and then they dropped a 35-14 matchup to Class AAA finalist Peach County in non-region action before running into Class AAAA state champion Blessed Trinity (28-7) in the semis. Quarterback J.T. Hartage will be back for his senior season after completing 146-of-215 passes (68 percent), for 1865 yards, 19 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions; he also rushed for 321 yards and seven touchdowns. Quen Wilson returns as the leading rusher but will need a running mate to step up and split the carries, especially early in the season. Wilson got better as last season progressed and rushed for a career-high 213 yards off 23 carries and scored four times in Mary Persons’ 51-32 quarterfinal win over Jefferson. Hartage has a slew of targets returning that have the potential to take Mary Person’s passing game to the next level. Antoine Davis was a running back for Tattnall Square two seasons ago, but joined Mary Persons in 2017 and made a smooth transition into a starting cornerback and wide receiver. Class of 2019 receiver Deadrek Alford caught Mary Persons’ only touchdown in its loss to Blessed Trinity and added a nine-catch, 164-yard game in the 28-21 win over Upson-Lee. Tight end Ladamion Sands is primarily a linebacker, but he can certainly contribute as a blocking and receiving tight end. Last year, Sands was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Jatorian Hansford, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker/safety hybrid that will be playing for Mizzou this fall.

Region 3: Baldwin, Burke County, Cross Creek, Richmond Academy, Thomson

Region 3 shrunk down to five teams after the departure of Hephzibah, which was dropped two classes to Class AA’s Region 4 after the mid-point reclassification cycle. In 2017, Burke County (12-1) won the sixth region title of head coach Eric Parker’s tenure (2007-present) and joined Cartersville, Ridgeland and Marist as one of the classification’s four teams that entered the playoffs unbeaten. The Bears cruised in the first two round of the playoffs, but a visiting Marist team served up a disappointing 28-6 defeat in the quarterfinals. This season, Burke County will need to replace quarterback Damari Kelly, who signed a scholarship to play wide receiver at Coastal Carolina next fall. Junior Jaunya Dove is stepping in at quarterback and comes in with a good grasp on the playbook, which uses the option with plenty of misdirection and motions. Thomson had to find a replacement for head coach Rob Ridings this offseason, who (like Americus-Sumter head coach Erik Soliday) retired as a public school teacher this spring and accepted the defensive coordinator position at Prince Avenue Christian.

Thomson, which made it to the 2015 state finals game, has hired Michael Youngblood to take over. Youngblood is a 1998 Burke County grad and was Parker’s defensive coordinator on the Bears’ 2011 state championship team. Recently, he held the same position at Ware County and Tucker under Franklin Stephens, who was a Burke County assistant himself before making a name for himself as a head coach. As a player, Youngblood remains the Burke County record holder for most receiving yards in a game/ season/ career, most field goals in a season, longest punt return, most interceptions in a game (among others), and was a member of two national championship teams while playing collegiately at Georgia Southern. Burke County closes its regular season at Thomson on Oct. 26, in what should be one of the biggest region games of the 2018 season anywhere in the classification. It will be the 35th all-time meeting between the schools, with Burke County’s 27-24 victory last year tilting the all-time series 18-16 in favor of the Bears; Thomson will conclude its regular season slate the following week at Richmond Academy. Jesse Hix’s second stint at Baldwin began last year and produced a 7-5 record; Hicks was previously head coach of Baldwin from 2002-09 before spending two seasons at Dougherty and leading Central-Macon from 2012-16. He has now led Baldwin to the playoffs in eight of his nine years at the school. Baldwin loses wide receiver Jatavious Harris, a 6-foot-2 Louisville signee. Baldwin’s non-region tour includes Washington County, Jones County, Veterans, Warner Robins, Northside-Warner Robins and Greenrbrier before its region opener at Richmond Academy on Oct. 5.

Richmond Academy took the No. 4 seed last year in Lyle Burns first year at the helm. The top 3 seeds from Region 3 all advanced past the first round last year, and although the Musketeers fell 48-35 to Region 4 champion Woodward Academy in the first round, the competitiveness of the game against the heavily favored War Eagles was proof of the region’s depth. Senior quarterback Mason Cobb leads the offense and the 5-foot-5 passer is most effective when rolling out and throwing on the run, which gives Burns an offense capable of sparking big plays in the passing game. Cobb is comfortable in his leadership role and there is great understanding between Cobb and his receivers, who do an excellent job getting open when he is on the move. The offense also has the ability to attack defenses out of the shotgun and on quick throws, where Cobb is effective in both delivering to a spot on quick slants, or lobbing out a short fade down the sideline for his receivers to chase down from the line of scrimmage and make a play.

After reaching the playoffs in 2016, Cross Creek was swept clean by Region 3 in 2017. It was the first season for head coach Tavis Cummings, who stepped in for Robert McCarty after four seasons. Cummings served on McCarty’s staff and was also the head baseball coach for the Razorbacks. Cummings opted to retain his duty as head baseball coach and is one of the few dual sport head coaches in the state. Cross Creek will rely on its running game as much as it can, but needs to establish balance in its attack, or passing downs will continue to be a gamble and likely lead to a lopsided ratio of interceptions to touchdowns next season. The good news is that without Hephzibah in the region this year, which handed Cross Creek a 41-6 defeat in 2017, Cross Creek will have one less team standing in the way of its playoff aspirations.

Region 4-AAAA: Druid Hills, Eastside, Hampton, Henry County, Luella, North Clayton, Salem, Woodward Academy

Woodward Academy won its fourth-straight region championship for the first time in its 115-year history this past season. Led by head coach John Hunt, the War Eagles have reached two semifinals and two quarterfinals the last four seasons and recorded 46 wins in the same span. Hunt, the 2014 Class AAAA Coach of the Year, has experience coaching and playing at every level of competition. After a playing career at the University of Florida, and brief stints with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the left guard spent 1992-1998 coaching high school football in the Sunshine State. Hunt accepted the position of offensive line coach at the University of Florida in 1999, and after five seasons, followed Steve Spurrier to the Washington Redskins (2002-04) and later to the University of South Carolina (2005-08). Last year’s War Eagles maintained their offensive firepower with 39.1 ppg, but the drop-off defensively was steep. After holding opponents to just 6.85 ppg in 2016, the defense allowed 22 ppg in 2017. Youth definitely factored into this dip as the roster consisted of just 13 seniors, but now Woodward Academy is returning a roster that is very experienced and very capable of competing with any team in the classification this year.

Woodward’s most electric player is Tahj Gary, the reigning Region 4-AAAA Player of the Year, and a do-it-all back that rushed for 19 touchdowns and 1305 yards, while adding a team-high 37 catches, 790 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound 3-star can work in traffic and gash defenses with his speed and physicality when given space, but also has plenty of returning talent to surround him. In total, 22 of the team’s 23 receiving touchdowns were caught by underclassmen a year ago and all 41 of the team’s rushing touchdowns in 2017 came from underclassmen.

Eastside has taken the No. 2 seed in back-to-back seasons and the Eagles’ only two losses have come to Woodward Academy. Eastside head coach Troy Hoff has been with the program since 2006, and took over in 2015 when Rick Hurst left to accept the head coaching job at Pepperrell. Like he did under Hurst, Hoff continues using the run-pass option offense, better known as RPO. In 2017, however, this system presented early challenges and forced adjustments to the playbook. Sophomore starting quarterback Noah Cook went down in a 20-6 region win over Luella to open the season, and senior Brayden Harper, who also played receiver and linebacker was forced into the job. Harper succeeded in quarterbacking Eastside to the No. 2 seed, but the real benefits could come this season. Harper was less of a thrower than Cook and as a result, Eastside both relied and discovered its ground game. The Eagles accounted for 236.5 rushing yards per game last season and found an interchangeable rotation of backs that should complement a healthy Cook very well next season, giving Hoff an opportunity to showcase the RPO to its potential in 2018.

North Clayton earned the No. 3 seed last year and reached its second-straight postseason, but the future continues looking even brighter for the Eagles. Cap Burnett, a North Clayton standout and former University of Georgia safety left Jonesboro’s coaching staff after the Cardinals posted an 11-2 finish in 2015 and eagerly accepted the head coaching job at his former school. Burnett has a young team returning in 2018, but will be anchored by an experienced offensive line, which returns its entire starting five. Freshman Courtney Colbert and Tyrek Spivey are in the midst of a summer-long quarterback battle, but after snapping a four-year playoff drought with back-to-back postseasons, Burnett is confident in the foundation that has been built.

Salem head coach Jarrett Laws is also entering his third year at the helm, and successfully led the Seminoles into the playoffs last season for just the second time since 2007. Laws has starting quarterback Donald Wilson returning for his senior campaign and is expecting the 6-foot-2 passer to play a significant role this upcoming season. Wilson will be surrounded with a lot of speed, including senior Omarious Burnam, a 3-star athlete with offers from Missouri, Appalachian State, Ball State and Georgia Southern, among others. 3-star wideout Tyler Smith enters his senior year with 21 offers already on the table, and 3-star cornerbacks Keevan Bailey and Artemus McCorkle give Salem an outstanding secondary to complement a very quick defense. Even with all this talent and experience, however, the Seminoles’ scrimmage against Newnan in the spring was riddled with the same untimely mistakes that have cost the program in recent seasons. The result was a humbling defeat that spiraled into a 45-8 final score, but Laws and his group of seniors vowed to use it as an opportunity to sharpen their focus the rest of the offseason.

Henry County went 0-10 in 2016 and after opening 2017 with an 0-7 record carried a 21-game losing streak into its final three games of last season. The Warhawks, however, would make things very interesting by closing out the season with three straight region victories and narrowly missing the playoffs with a 3-3 record that was identical to No. 3 seed North Clayton and No. 4 seed Salem. Henry County is probably the only team in the state that missed the playoffs last season, that carries a three-game winning streak into 2018, and the obvious question will be whether or not the program can maintain this momentum. Head coach Morris Starr is confident in his returning quarterback Jaylon West, an All-Region selection a year ago that threw for 1,588 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Luella went 1-9 last year under first-year head coach Jason Jackson, but lost four of its games by fewer than 10 points and also had to encounter eventual Class AAAAAA state champion Lee County in non-region play. Jackson was the linebackers coach on Cartersville’s state championship team in 2015 and has built a solid defense at Luella. The offense remains a work in progress, however, and the Lions will have to find a way to replace all-region running back Latrell Murray, who has been the lead back for multiple seasons. Starr is eager, however, to see if Evan Stephens and Dejon Conway can step up to fill the backfield’s void.

Druid Hills also went 1-9 last year, but fell 40-36 to Luella and was swept in region play. Head coach Myron Burton is entering his third year at the helm, but familiarity should follow him with this year’s rising seniors. Burton has been at the school since 2007 and served as JV head coach in 2015 when the group posted a 4-1 record.

Henry County-based Hampton High School is the newest addition to the region, hailing from Region 4 in Class AAAAA. The Hornets are a young school that opened its doors in 2014. Head coach Chad Ashley has faced the challenge of building a program that not only competed in a full-varsity schedule its first-ever year as a school, but has been placed in difficult regions in all five of its seasons. The Hornets have gone 2-37 in four seasons and did not celebrate a region victory, or home victory, until a 17-14 win over Woodland-Stockbridge last season. Each year, the program is slowly graduating bigger senior classes, and Hampton’s most challenging years are behind them. Ashley will continue to operate his offense out of the option, but the return of senior Jaquari Smith at quarterback should give the playbook more situational flexibility than in years past.

Region 5: Cartersville, Cedartown, Central-Carroll, Chapel Hill, LaGrange, Sandy Creek, Troup

Cartersville has won six consecutive region championships, with five perfect regular seasons, two state titles and an incredible 77-5 record in the same span. The Purple Hurricanes carried a state-best 41-game active winning streak into last year’s second round playoffs at the peak of this prominence, but a shocking 21-17 loss to eventual state champion Blessed Trinity ended the Canes’ bid for a three-peat, as well as the record-breaking varsity career of quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The four-year starter and current Clemson Tiger brought a spotlight to not only Cartersville, but the entire state as the No. 1 ranked prospect in the country. He ended his career as the state’s all-time leader in career passing yards and touchdowns, and received the 2017 Hall Trophy for being the ‘Most outstanding high school football player in the United States.’ When Cartersville head coach Joey King took the job in 2014, Lawrence was a freshman, and has started all 82 games that King has been with the program. King and his staff, however, have been able build depth and talent up and down the roster, as well as a strong system on both sides of the football. The Canes will be a tough matchup this upcoming season for any team, in or outside of region competition. This year’s starting quarterback in going to be junior Tee Webb, a 6-foot-4 passer that has already been offered by Louisville, Mercer, Austin Peay and Rutgers. And this year’s senior class includes Jackson Lowe, a 6-foot-5 tight end and 4-star prospect committed to Tennessee, Isaiah Chaney, a 6-foot-4 defensive end committed to Wake Forest and Kaleb Chatmon, a 3-star wide receiver.

Cedartown finished second in Region 5 a year ago, only falling to Cartersville in region action and advancing to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time since 2002. This capped an incredible debut season for head coach O’Doyle Kelly. The longtime assistant coach and teacher had worked in the county for three decades before the job finally opened, and Kelly seized his dream opportunity. Cedartown, the alma mater of former UGA running back and current Cleveland Brown Nick Chubb, will feature another star in its backfield this upcoming season. Rising senior Tony Mathis is a physical runner that accounted for more than 1,100 rushing yards last season and holds offers from Louisville, Purdue, Wake Forest and West Virginia among others. Cedartown scored a 23-21 win over Sandy Creek in 2017, the first time in four previous tries that the Bulldogs defeated the Patriots and their 17.75 points per game allowed defensively was their best since 2002.

Troup earned the No. 3 seed a year ago and finished 9-3 overall, but it was the school-record 37.83 points per game that the Tigers put up that was most notable. Quarterback Montez Crowe finished the year with 3,984 passing yards, 40 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Jamari Thrash (13) and Kobe Hudson (12) combined for 25 touchdown receptions and 2,306 receiving yards last season. Both will be back this year, but without Crowe airing it out this upcoming season, it remains to be seen if Troup is going to be able to maintain this firepower. Troup opened last season 7-0, its best start since going 8-0 to open the 1972 season, but stumbled down the stretch, losing two of its final three games and entering the playoffs as a road team after such a promising start. The Tigers were held to just 18 points in their 21-18 loss to Cedartown and then were intercepted four times in its 52-13 loss to Cartersville in the regular season finale. Troup got past Heritage-Catoosa 31-7 in the opening round, but came up short in a second-round shootout with St. Pius 43-35. Thrash caught a career-high 12 passes for 230 yards in the game, but defensive vulnerabilities allowed St. Pius to win the back-and-forth affair.

Like Cedartown, Chapel Hill defeated Sandy Creek (35-32) for the first time in its program history in 2017. Region losses to Cartersville, Cedartown and Troup gave the Panthers the No. 4 seed with a 3-3 conference record. Chapel Hill entered the postseason with a 6-4 overall record and had guaranteed its first winning season since 2012, but a 63-7 first-round loss to Ridgeland was a reminder of the what still needs to be done in order to broker the breakthrough needed to turn the program into a noisemaker come playoff time. Head coach Justin DeShon will have dual threat quarterback, and strong safety, KJ Burton back for his senior campaign and plenty of team speed and returning experience to see the program make another stride in 2018.

Sandy Creek’s dominance has waned in recent years, and the program’s 5-5 finish last season snapped a run of 15-straight postseason appearances. Rodney Walker led Sandy Creek from 1999-2004 and then handed over the program to his son Chip Walker in 2005, who would lead the Patriots to two state titles during an incredible 12-year run (127-26) until leaving to take the same position at Newnan in 2017. Long-time assistant Brett Garvin is familiar with the program’s winning tradition, and stepped in as new head coach last season with a very young team. After a 3-0 start, the Patriots dropped four straight and five of their final seven games. A 71-16 loss to Troup to open region play was the most points the program had ever given up, and then a disappointing 35-32 loss to Chapel Hill was followed by a 63-0 loss to Cartersville. Sandy Creek was competitive against Cedartown, but fell 23-21. Sandy Creek has had plenty of time to reassess and should be much more competitive this year with a more experienced bunch.

The move to Class AAAA has been a challenge for Central-Carroll, which used a 32-6 win over LaGrange to avoid getting swept by Region 5 for a second straight year. Rico Zachery led the Lions to a perfect regular season finish in 2014 and totaled 30 wins in the program’s final three seasons spent in AAA (2013-15). Zachery left to take the Villa Rica job and Larry Kesler took over in 2016, and quickly found out how much more difficult Region 5-AAAA was than their previous home in Region 5-AAA. The Lions scored just 6.1 ppg and lost by 33.2 ppg. Kesler resigned following the 0-10 campaign and Darius Smiley stepped in. Smiley followed the winless season with a 3-7 debut, but Central-Carroll will still have work to do in order to find the same success in AAAA that they did in AAA.

LaGrange, which has fielded football teams since 1905, has won just two games in its last two seasons, and went 0-10 last year. Statistically, it was the worst season in the program’s 100-plus years of competition as they managed just 4.4 ppg and gave up 37.9 ppg. Chuck Gibbs has been hired to restore order and bring the Grangers program back to life. Gibbs is the son of former NFL and college assistant coach Alex Gibbs, who is celebrated today as a two-time Super Bowl winning coach with the Denver Broncos and a proponent of the zone blocking scheme used widely today. Expect a new-look LaGrange team in 2018, and a much more rounded Region 5-AAAA overall than we have seen the last two seasons.

Region 6-AAAA: Gilmer, Heritage-Catoosa, LaFayette, Northwest Whitfield, Pickens, Southeast Whitfield, Ridgeland

Geographically, Region 6-AAAA is Georgia’s most northwest region out of all the classifications and will be represented by its reigning champ, Ridgeland, in the first football game that will be played in the entire 2018 GHSA season (Ridgeland vs. Calhoun Aug. 16). Last season, Ridgeland swept its way to a region crown and Heritage-Catoosa earned the No. 2 seed after only falling to the Panthers, but it would end up taking a mini-series between Northwest Whitfield, Pickens and Southeast Whitfield to break a three-way tie and decide the final two playoff spots. Ridgeland (46.25 ppg), Heritage (38.27), Pickens (37.82), Southeast Whitfield (32.4) and Northwest Whitfield (30.82) were all able to light up the scoreboard last season, but only Ridgeland was able to match its firepower, and truly excel on the defensive side.

Rossville-native and first-year head coach Cortney Braswell will lead Ridgeland this season, taking over for Wesley Tankersley, who led the program to its first-ever perfect regular season and an 11-1 overall record in 2017. Tankersley hasn’t travelled far, taking over for Stephens County this offseason, which resides in Region 8-AAAA. Starting quarterback Tanner Hill will be entering his senior season and will be given more control in the new system that is scratching the program’s traditional Wing-T option for a modernized attack. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Hill has exceptional mobility and the physical and mental experience to prepare him for a big year. Hill also happens to be one of the few returning starting quarterbacks in the region next year, so that will another incredible advantage.

On the other side of the Region 6 spectrum is Gilmer, which hasn’t seen success or a competitive game in more than a year. Ridgeland’s 46.25 ppg offensively and 9.33 ppg allowed a year ago really puts into perspective how wide the gap from the region champ down to the region’s basement really is. The Bobcats were shut out 8 of 10 games a year ago, only managed 3.4 ppg and lost by 47.1 ppg. The program has gone winless in back-to-back seasons, and hasn’t seen success since Tankersley left in 2014 to accept the Ridgeland job after leading the program to three-straight postseasons.

The LaFayette Ramblers defeated Gilmer 42-6 last year and still gave up an average of 46 points per game in region action. Last year, however, is behind the program as they have brought in a brand new coach with a trail of success to steer them toward a brighter future. In March, Paul Ellis was hired as the program’s 36th all-time head coach after leading the Fort Payne (Ala.) Wildcats for 14 seasons. Ellis leaves as Fort Payne’s all-time winningest coach with a 109-48 record. His teams made the playoffs 12 out of 14 years, claimed six region championships in Class 6A, and posted five seasons with 10 or more victories.

“We had 115 applicants for this position and he emerged over the interview process as the best fit to lead our football program into the future,” LaFayette Principal Tracy Hubbert told the Walker County Messenger.

Southeast Whitfield fell 7-0 to Pickens in the region mini-series and missed out of reaching the playoffs, despite its 7-3 record being its best finish since 1985. Their 32.4 ppg on offense were the best in school history, but the departure of starting quarterback Porter Johnson and Oscar Gonzalez, a two-sport star that used his 6-foot-4 frame to haul in a team-high 13 touchdown grabs in 2017, will leave head coach Sean Gray searching for the next class of playmakers and leaders.

Pickens’ reward for earning the No. 4 seed a year ago was a first-round trip to juggernaut Cartersville, and the Dragons were dealt a 48-21 defeat. Pickens averaged 208 rushing yards per game last season and will once again rely heavily on the ground game in 2018. Leading the way will be Robert Davis, an explosive running back that took 115 carries for 1,202 rushing yards (10.5 ypc) and ran in 14 touchdowns last year as a junior. Defensively, Pickens gave up 34.5 ppg a year ago, and in this case, a solid running game might be the quickest way to alleviate some of the pressure that the defense has been feeling.

Northwest Whitfield head coach Josh Robinson became the first in Bruins’ history to reach three straight postseasons last year, but will have a new quarterback to work with next season. Luke Shiflett, a 6-foot-2, 3-star passer, enrolled at Middle Tennessee State this January. Shifllett’s dual-threat ability is what not only balanced out the offense the past few seasons, but what grabbed the attention of MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill in 2016 after a breakout junior season. Shiflett passed for 2,330 yards with a 64-percent completion rate and added 741 rushing yards, accounting for 33 total touchdowns.

Heritage-Catoosa has only been around since 2008, but the 2017 season proved to be an incredible way to celebrate a decade of gridiron competition. A 13-11 win over Ringgold two games into the season gave the program its first-ever win over the rival Tigers in 10 tries. The Generals, led by head coach E.K. Slaughter, didn’t slow down and capped a school-record 9-2 finish by reaching back-to-back postseasons for the first time. The Generals continue a steady rise, but Slaughter is going to challenged by having to replace a pair of three-sport stars (quarterback Blake Bryan and primary receiver Luke Grant). Bryan sparked last year’s offense with 27 touchdown passes and 182.3 passing yards per game, and Grant hauled in 15 touchdowns and finished the year with 1,065 receiving yards.

Region 7-AAAA: Blessed Trinity, Chestatee, Denmark, Flowery Branch, Marist, West Hall, White County

Region 7 will be the freshest, and arguably most challenging, region in the classification this upcoming season with the arrival of two new squads and the return of both 2017 finalists, Blessed Trinity and Marist. Four teams are going to go to the playoffs out of these seven teams, and they’ll all have a chance to make serious noise in the Class AAAA bracket when they do.

Flowery Branch was classed down from AAAAA after its FTE (full-time equivalency) enrollment dropped 27% at the midpoint of the GHSA’s four-year reclassification cycle (only schools with 20 percent increases or decreases are affected by this rule). Despite the dip in enrollment, Flowery Branch’s program is trending upward with Ben Hall entering his second year as head coach. The Falcons began varsity competition in 2002 under head coach Lee Shaw, who built the program from the ground up until a surprise departure in 2011. Under Shaw, the Falcons averaged 10.4 wins per season his final seven years. Shaw returned to his alma mater Rabun County where he has once again found a winning formula. Flowery Branch had been struggling until last year’s 9-3 finish. But not only was the team’s three-year playoff drought snapped, but now coach Hall returns to a classification that he is already familiar with; Hall led Jefferson to 44 wins from 2013-16 while the Dragons resided in it.

White County is coming off an incredible turnaround campaign in what marked Tim Cokely’s first year as head coach. The Warriors followed their 1-9 finish in 2016 with a 7-4 record and used wins over Chestatee (56-27) and West Hall (33-28) to grab the No. 3 seed behind Blessed Trinity and Marist. This year will be more challenging with the region growing from 5 to 7 teams, but after averaging a school-record 31.36 points per game last season, the program could be poised for an even bigger 2018. Chestatee lost 43-7 to Flowery Branch last year in non-region play before getting swept in region action, so the War Eagles know how tough next year’s region will be with the Falcons adding to it. Also, the War Eagles will have to find a new feature back after the graduation of Nick Lyles, who led the way with 22 of the team’s 26 rushing touchdowns a year ago. West Hall will debut a new head coach this fall in Krofton Montgomery, who was the team’s offensive coordinator the last five seasons. Montgomery and the Spartans put their five-year playoff streak on the line this upcoming season after grabbing the No. 4 seed a year ago.  Denmark High School is Forsyth County’s newest program and is expected to be in Class AAAAAAA by the next time the FTE numbers are counted in 2020. The Danes are being led by former Chattahoochee state champion coach Terry Crowder and held spring practice, despite the school not even opening its doors for the first time until this August. Crowder has players coming primarily from South Forsyth and Lambert and will have plenty of talent to work with, including junior wide receiver and Clemson-commit Ze’Vian Capers (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) who Crowder says has a chance to be the best player he has ever coached. Playing a varsity schedule in the school’s first year is going to be a challenge, but there is no doubt that this team will be highly competitive.

Defending region champion Marist used a two-point conversion to defeat Blessed Trinity 25-24 in the regular season, but saw its perfect season end with a 16-7 loss in a finals rematch with the Titans. Last year’s Marist team was one of the most balanced the War Eagles have had in head coach Alan Chadwick’s 34 seasons at the school and it’s uncertain if that will be the case this season now that quarterback Chase Abshier has graduated, along with UGA commit and tight end John Fitzpatrick. Marist is going to open the season with four challenging non-region games (Lovett, Baylor TN, Westminster and St. Pius) and its anticipated championship rematch with Blessed Trinity isn’t until the season finale.

Blessed Trinity is returning the most accomplished senior class in the classification this season and will be tested right out the gates, with non-region contests against St. Pius, South Forsyth, Woodward Academy and Benedictine. Running back Steele Chambers, who recently committed to Ohio State, gives the Titans an unstoppable combination of athleticism, experience, versatility and power coming out of the backfield. Star linebacker and UGA-commit JD Bertrand missed half of last season with a fractured foot, but was a difference maker when he returned in the playoffs. Quarterback Jake Smith is only getting better, and his favorite target, Ryan Davis, is a big-play receiver with textbook routes, dependability and the clutch factor. Blessed Trinity will have lots of pressure on them this season, but this group has already proved they can handle it.

Region 8: Madison County, North Oconee, Oconee County, St. Pius, Stephens County

The biggest change to affect the region this offseason came with the departure of Jefferson to Class AAA post-reclassification. St. Pius enters its 18th season with head coach Paul Standard at the helm and is fresh off a Region 8 title and impressive turnaround campaign. After experiencing a proliferation of success from 2009-2015, that included 67 wins in the six-year span, the offense and the Golden Lions stalled in 2016, dipping down to just 12.4 ppg and posting its worst finish (2-9) since Standard’s arrival. Last season was a defining moment for the program as the team opened up the season 0-5 before region action and then caught fire. Oddly enough, St. Pius has not won a non-region game in four seasons and has actually dropped 15 straight non-region games entering this season so that is a streak that could and should end this year. Still, region games are where it counts and St. Pius seems to be back on track after following that 0-5 start with a clean sweep of the region last year and then defeating West Hall, Troup and Woodward Academy before finally getting eliminated by Marist in the semis 35-14.

Oconee County is led by head coach Travis Nolan, who arrived at the program in 2014 after serving as Stephens County head coach for nine seasons and spending seven successful years in North Carolina. Nolan’s Warriors have made the playoffs in each of his four years at the school, and ran into state champion Blessed Trinity (35-0) in the first round a year ago. Nolan has one of the top quarterback prospects in the state leading his offense in Class of 2020 prospect Max Johnson. The 6-foot-4 pro style passer started as a sophomore last season and has already been offered by Miami, FSU, Auburn, UGA and Louisville and is currently the No. 10 ranked prospect in the star-studded Class of 2020.

Stephens County is being led by former Ridgeland coach Wesley Tankersley this season and will be feeling the changes this year after the disappointment of missing out of the playoffs for the first time since 2009 last season. The Indians graduated most of their passing game and nearly all of their rushing game, but the changes that will come with Tankersley should be able to breed healthy competition and like the rest of the region, Stephens County will have six non-region games to prepare for the in-conference competition.

Madison County, which used its 20-14 win over Stephens County to grab the No. 4 seed a year ago, advanced to its first playoffs since 2006 and fought hard against a superior Marist team in the first round before falling 38-14. Leading this impressive run was another Class of 2020 passer, Colby Smith, who threw 12 of his 13 touchdowns a year ago to underclassmen that will be returning this year. Two-sport athlete Traveon Latimore is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound playmaker that caught seven touchdowns, rushed in five touchdowns and did the bulk of this damage against the region competition. Look for Latimore to help balance out the offense this year, create mismatches, and play a larger role his senior season.

North Oconee hasn’t been the same since running back Kawon Bryant graduated in 2015; Bryant rushed for 28 touchdowns and led the Titans to the school’s first-ever quarterfinals his senior season. The team posted a 5-6 record the first year post-Bryant, but have now gone just 1-19 in the past two. Finding, and creating depth will be the most important task for the Titans this season as durability, especially on the defensive side was non-existent by the end of last season. The Titans were swept by Region 8 and surrendered 44 points per game in the five-game span to close the season.

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