30th year is here; day three Corky Kell Classic spring previews

By: Josh Talevski

Day three of the four-day, 11 game slate brings us to two locations: Gainesville and North Cobb High School.

Friday’s slate of games begins with Gainesville taking on Johns Creek on Aug. 20 at 5:30 p.m at Gainesville’s Bobby Gruhn Field. Both programs finished last season with records hovering around .500 and suffered losses in the Round of 32, cutting their individual seasons short. This year, both teams will look to take another step towards making a deeper playoff run.

In the second game Friday, North Cobb will face Buford in a rematch from last season. The game will kick off at 8:30 at North Cobb’s Emory Sewell Stadium. Both programs are coming off of successful seasons, where Buford won its second straight state championship and North Cobb finished 10-2, losing to Lowndes in the Round of 16.

At Gainesville


Gainesville is led by head coach Heath Webb, now in his fourth year leading the Red Elephants. Since his 2018 hire, Webb is 13-20 and has not claimed a region title. However, Webb has still managed to lead Gainesville to the playoffs in all of his seasons as head coach, giving the Red Elephants a school-record 21-consecutive playoff appearances. Last season, Gainesville finished 6-5 and came up short in the Round of 32 against Archer 21-14.

Gainesville was short-handed in spring practice as many athletes were playing spring sports and a few were suffering from injury. Nevertheless, Webb was pleased to be back on the field and “feel a sense of normalcy” again. One of Webb’s spring goals was to get his younger players on the field, and he said everyone received plenty of reps in practice and felt that a lot of team depth was built.

This season, the Red Elephants are returning eight offensive starters, four defensive starters and their kicker. Two key starters returning for Gainesville are running back Naim Cheeks and wide receiver Jonquavies (JQ) Drinkard. Cheeks will be a junior this season and was named to the 7A Region 6 First-Team Offense after rushing for 1,270 yards. Drinkard was also named to the First-Team Offense last season and was a standout in practice, according to Webb.

Other spring practice standouts included sophomore quarterback Baxter Wright, who saw some game action as a freshman, wide receivers DJ Miller, Macere Walker and JaQuez Sims, tight end Zander Lipscomb, linebacker Stacy Hopkins Jr., and defensive ends Qua Coley and Khaliq Maddox.

Some of Gainesville’s team leaders are the aforenamed Cheeks, kicker Giovanni Martinez, who will take over as Gainesville’s punter for the first time in his career, and offensive tackle Elijah Ruiz. Ruiz was also a member of the All-Region First-Team Offense last season and is converting from center to play tackle in his senior season. Ruiz will be vital to Gainesville’s success with the departure of three-star offensive tackle Cedrick Nicely, who will be attending Ole Miss.

Gainesville’s word for the season is “grit.” Webb noticed that his team sounded much more confident entering spring practice and shared that the Red Elephants’ culture is gritty and his team is much tougher than last season’s.

After making the jump to 7A last season, Gainesville’s two goals this season are to build more depth and win close games. After losing five games last season by a combined 25 points, Webb believes that if his team can win its games in the last two minutes and remain healthy this season, it should lead to a longer playoff run in 2021.

Johns Creek 

Johns Creek enters its fifth season under head coach Matt Helmerich. Since 2017, Helmerich is 26-16 with two region titles which came in 2018 and 2019. Last season, the Gladiators finished 4-5, losing to Allatoona 24-0 in the Round of 32.

The Gladiators were very productive this spring, as Helmerich said they got a lot of good practices in and beat Central Gwinnett 27-0 in a scrimmage game. Helmerich remarked that this year’s team is the hardest working team he has ever coached and his players did an excellent job grasping what was emphasized in practice.

The vibes of practice were very positive for Johns Creek, and the team is much more talkative than last year’s group. Helmerich was excited about the increased energy and communication in practice and believes his team will mature this season and build a greater family atmosphere.

This year’s Johns Creek team features 27 seniors, two of which are in 247Sports Top 100 Georgia recruits. 2022 three-star offensive tackle Tyler Gibson is the 39th best prospect in the state, and 2022 three-star athlete Terian Williams II ranks 74th. Both are uncommitted. Helmerich said that Williams is a natural leader and a very fun player who will likely play on both sides of the ball at wide receiver and safety. Gibson will likely be a two-way starter as well since Johns Creek lost all of its starters on the defensive line.

Defensive line is a major concern for the Gladiators this season, especially due to the loss of three-star defensive end Cole Nelson, who will play collegiately at Virginia Tech and was a team leader last season. However, sophomore defensive lineman Alex Cunningham made huge strides in practice and is already receiving offers from multiple Division I programs.

Helmerich pointed to two of his players on defense who are key leaders for the Gladiators: lineman Thaxton Gallagher and center Max Thayer. Gallagher has been a three-year starter on offensive and defensive line but transformed his body in order to play linebacker, as well. It remains to be seen exactly where he will play for Johns Creek, especially with a new defensive coordinator in Ryan Douglas.

Sophomore running back Antonio Gilliam was a spring practice standout, who appears to be the Gladiators’ newest lead back. Wide receiver Kyle Vaka also impressed with his precise route running. Additionally, quarterbacks Kyle Durham and Luke Richards played well, though Durham is favored to win the starting job.

This year’s slogan for the Gladiators is “find a way.” Helmerich was quick to say that his team was disappointed with how the season finished last year but had learned from the adversity they faced last year. If Johns Creek can continue to make weekly improvements, Helmerich is confident his team can achieve its goal and win the region with home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

At North Cobb

North Cobb

The North Cobb football team has been coached by Shane Queen since 2006. Over that span, Queen is 106-62 and won region titles in 2007, 2013 and 2020. Queen has also led the Warriors to the playoffs in 11 of his 15 seasons to-date. Last season, the Warriors finished 10-2, losing to Lowndes 23-13 in the 7A Round of 16.

North Cobb is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball this season. The group is headlined by 2022 four-star wide receiver De’Nylon Morrissette, who is the 22nd ranked recruit in the state and a University of Georgia commit. North Cobb is also led by four-star quarterback Malachi Singleton, who is the 20th ranked Georgia recruit in the Class of 2023.

On defense, the Warriors enter with highly-touted 2022 recruits Andre Stewart and Joshua Josephs. Stewart is a three-star cornerback, and the 43rd ranked player in the state is committed to playing at the University of Kentucky. This year will also mark Stewart’s fourth different team in four years, as he spent the previous three at Marietta, Grayson and Brookwood. Josephs is a three-star defensive end and the 53rd ranked recruit in Georgia. He is currently uncommitted.

Although North Cobb will rely on Morrissette in much of its passing game, it will be without wide receivers Tray Curry and Christian Moss, who were both three-star receivers critical to the Warriors’ success last season. Moss will be playing at Virginia Tech, though it remains to be seen where Curry will play.

North Cobb managed to hand Buford its only loss last season, but the task will not be as easy for Warriors this year. However, if Singleton and Morrissette can connect to form a dangerous connection, North Cobb could very well start the season 1-0 and on the path towards another region title in 2021.


Bryant Appling has been the head coach at Buford since 2019. Since becoming head coach, Appling is 27-2, winning a 2020 region title and leading the Wolves to back-to-back state championships in his first two seasons. Last season, the Wolves finished 12-1, defeating Lee County 34-31 in overtime in the 6A state championship game.

The Wolves were missing a lot of key players in spring practice due to the spring sports season, but Appling was still satisfied with his practices. Appling said that many of the underclassmen got a lot of reps, and the key players who were in practice looked great. Appling also stated that the team “didn’t go crazy” during spring practice but enjoyed the positive energy he received from his players.

Buford is returning six starters on offense and seven on defense this season, and the team is loaded with talent. The Wolves have seven players in 247Sports Top 100 recruits, with most of them playing on the defense. Safeties Jake Pope and Malik Spencer are ranked 35th and 56th, respectively, and athletes Isaiah Bond and CJ Clinkscales are ranked 57th and 88th, respectively. Spencer is committed to Michigan State, Bond is a Florida commit, and Clinkscales is planning on playing at Boston College.

Additionally, the Wolves have three-star running back Victor Venn (#68), a Colorado commit, three-star outside linebacker VJ Payne (#78), a Boston College commit, and three-star cornerback Ryland Gandy (#66), who is uncommitted.

Appling described Spencer as the “bell cow” of the defense, adding that Gandy was his “partner-in-crime” in the secondary. Spencer is also one of the leaders on this year’s Buford squad and very respected by his teammates. Offensive lineman Jackson Favors and senior quarterback Ashton Daniels are two other key figures in the Buford locker room.

Spring standouts for the Wolves included backup quarterback Dylan Wittke, who is a rising junior, linebacker Aubry Smith, two-way starters Eli Parks, Josiah Wyatt, Nathan Norys, Jemarcus White and kicker Alejandro Mata, who was named Specialist of the Year in 6A Region 8.

Appling was also proud of the work of some of his younger players, such as tight end Eddrick Houston, fullback and linebacker Bryson Banks, wide receiver KJ Bowden and running back and cornerback Jaylen Neal.

Though Buford runs a relatively balanced offense, Buford may lean more towards its run game with Venn and a good running back group. Aside from that, the Wolves will likely spend their time this summer fine-tuning their talented offense.

This year’s slogan for Buford appears to be “own your stuff.” Appling has preached ownership and accountability to his team so that they can play at the highest level. Appling also wants his team to be the “biggest dog in the yard” and be a “hard-nosed, tough and physical” football team.

If there is one area Appling is hoping to improve upon this season, it is that his team grows closer and takes care of each other better, following a season limited by COVID-19. If Buford can stick to the same formula of seasons past, the Wolves should have no problem building upon the winning tradition Appling has brought.




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