Top 10 opening week matchups

Sonny Kennedy

Here is an in-depth look at ten of the best and most intriguing week 1 match-ups in the state.


(Honorable Mention) Norland, Fla. at Stephenson (Aug. 23)


I was not sure to put this game in the top ten, but considering it has taken two years in the making it could make the cut. Last year these teams were all set to open the season in the National High School Gridiron Challenge at North Gwinnett, but Tropical Storm Issac came through the gulf and the game was cancelled. Event coordinators tried to pin Stephenson against teams from Tallahassee, but they could not pull it off and the teams spent week one watching as the high school season kicked off.

In an interview with AJC’s Todd Holcomb when the decision to cancel the game was still up in the air, a frustrated Stephenson head coach, Ron Gartrell said “It’s very important to play if we can. We played our scrimmage early, so it would be three weeks if we had to wait until next week. We’re tired of beating up on ourselves. At this point, we’d line up against the Falcons if we had to.”

The Jaguars ended up bouncing back from the extra week off just fine, winning their first five games of the season by a combined score of 176-31 and finishing the season 9-3. Norland went 8-3 in Florida’s Class AAAAA last year. Stephenson is lead by playmaker Dallas Rivers who is committed to Vanderbilt. The Jaguars also have a pair of offensive guards Jordan Harris and Tyler Jones who are both committed to Mississippi State. Jared Tucker is a 5-foot-11 safety who is pledged to Kentucky and Montez Sweat is a 6-foot-6 tight end with offers from Buffalo, Cincinnati, Duke, Florida and Georgia State.


 10. Carrollton at Oxford, Ala. (Aug. 30)


Carrollton head coach Rayvan Teague loves challenging his team, and their 2013 schedule will have plenty of obstacles along the way for them to tackle. With games against Calhoun and Sandy Creek on the season slate, preparation and a quick start to the season could be key. Teague’s Trojans will play a talented Oxford, AL team that handed them a 21-17 loss in 2012′s season opener. They play Chapel Hill in week 2 and Calhoun in week 3, so this is a big test for them early in the season. In 2012, the Trojans’ 46-35 loss to Calhoun in the third week of the season gave them a 1-2 start. I would expect the Trojans to be primed and ready for redemption in this cross-state battle.


9. Wilcox County at Wilkinson County (Aug. 30)


These two Class A teams circle this matchup when it comes their way. In 2009, Wilkinson County beat the Patriots 25-21 and claimed bragging rights for three years until they finally played again in 2012. Wilcox County pulled off a 43-39 win last season and used the momentum for a solid rest of the season. Wilkinson County found success as well in 2012, but finished  8-4 on the year. All four losses were one possession games, and the Warriors can wonder what might have been if they were able to pull out these close games. Warriors head coach James Hagins has stressed finishing games to his team all offseason, and his group looks ready heading into this season. The two south Georgia schools are ranked in our Class A top 10 and are separated by less than 20 miles.


8. Calhoun at Ridgeland (Aug. 30)


Calhoun and Ridgeland both ended their 2012 seasons in disappointing fashion. A year after Calhoun beat Buford for the 2011 championship, they found themselves falling short in the championship again (31-14 to Jefferson). Ridgeland lost to Sandy Creek 45-10 in the Class AAAA finals. Calhoun got the best of Ridgeland (42-35) in their 2012 matchup. The win proved to be the Yellow Jackets’ closest game of the season. Ridgleand comes into 2013 without 5,000 yards of rushing offense from last year’s prolific attack. Darrell Bridges and Vonn Bell were the two headliners and bulldozed and scampered their way to 61 touchdowns in 2012. Bridges, who is at Presbyterian College, rushed for nearly 2,400 yards and Vonn Bell accounted for over 1,100. Bell is at Ohio State this year. The 800 yards returning in the backfield come from Noah Cooper, who will star in the Panthers running attack this upcoming season.

“I think Noah is capable of having a big year numbers wise,” said head coach Mark Mariakis.”He’s a hard runner and one of his biggest assets is his balance and vision. He’s gonna be that guy everyone looks to because he is the only skill player we have returning this year.”

This game will be the ultimate measuring stick for two teams looking to bounce back from runner-up heartbreakers last year.


7. ELCA at Washington County (Aug. 23)


ELCA played a near flawless 2012 schedule with the exception of one game. The Chargers lost their season opener 24-19 to Class-AAA powerhouse Washington County. Even with the loss, the Chargers managed 44 points per game on the season while allowing only seven. With their defensive starters on the field they gave up only three points per contest. They beat Prince Avenue Christian 33-0 in the Class-A state championsip. The only thing left for ELCA to cross off its list would be upsetting one of the better programs in the state, Washington County.

The running attack returns and so does the Chargers starting quarterback Dalton Etheridge. The senior quarterbacked one of the best offenses in the state a year ago and he has 6-foot-3, 200 pound Jamal Tookes headlining his targets this year.

ELCA head coach Jonathan Gess is confident with his run game heading into the season, “The power run game is who we are and what we do. We have a great offensive line and running backs along with an outstanding fullback in Josh Shockley. Our offensive linemen are big and powerful guys and that’s where the power run originates.”

Notre Dame signee Isaac Rochell starred as two-way weapon at defensive end and tight end in 2012 and will have one of the most talented prospects in the state replacing him. Andrew Williams stands 6-foot-4, 231 pounds and is listed by 247sports as a top 20 recruit in the state. It will be Williams’ time to shine this year.

Washington County was knocked out of the 2012 playoffs by Class AAA state runner up St. Pius X 40-35. The 40 points were the most they allowed all season, and it was a disappointing finish for head coach Joel Ingram. Coming into 2013, the Golden Hawks appear as serious contenders and will face an experienced Chargers offense.



6. McEachern vs. Brookwood GEORGIA DOME (Aug. 24)


Brookwood comes off an interesting 2012 season. They started with a 35-24 loss to Walton and witnessed perhaps Tyren Jones’ best performace as he gashed the defense for 300 yards on over 40 carries. The following week, they upset Mill Creek 31-21 and then edged Archer 20-19 in week 3. In the opening round of the playoffs, after upsetting No. 1 state-ranked and undefeated Lassiter 24-21 in overtime, they got blown out by Mill Creek in the rematch 56-21. Josh Brown returns in the Broncos backfield and will pace the offense again. Brookwood’s defense was inconsistent last season and that is expected to change.

The Broncos face another prolific running offense this season and will have the task of slowing down McEachern. The Indians boasts one of the fastest offenses in the state and routinely scampered for 250 yards last season. Junior all-purpose back Taj Griffin has offers from Georgia, Ohio State, Arkansas, Auburn, and Clemson. All these offers came after his breakout sophomore campaign. Henry Famurewa is a 6-foot-2 235 pound defensive end that is committed to Louisville. Famurewa will be a player to watch and is poised for a big senior season. Quarterback Ty Griffin is being recruited as an athlete at the next level.

These teams are both used to playing in the Corky Kell Classic, and understand how big these games can be for the rest of the season. A big win in the Dome can change everything, and both the Indians and Broncos have the potential for solid 2013 seasons.


5. Colquitt County vs. Grayson GEORGIA DOME (Aug. 24)


I know this is the third game from the Corky Kell Classic in the top 10, but when it comes to opening week, these games rarely disappoint. Grayson will enter the post-Robert Nkemdiche era without a senior recruit listed in Georgia’s top 150. Grayson’s defense managed to allow just 10 points per game in a loaded schedule last season. Whether or not the Grayson defense will be there this season will be seen first hand, as this seasoned Colquitt County program has the knack for showing up in big games.

Packers head coach Rush Propst was stunned last season in the Dome against North Gwinnett (16-14) and lost in the playoffs 41-27 to Norcross. If you do not think South Georgia teams take losses to Gwinnett schools personally then think again. Grayson and Colquitt County should be a slug fest in this classic North vs. South battle.


4. Gainesville at West Forsyth (Aug. 30)


When it comes to defense, these two teams do not exactly impress. Offensively however, they were the two most explosive teams in the state a year ago. West Forsyth broke the 60 point mark three times and scored 56 on another occasion. In the playoffs they beat Collins Hill 66-41 in the opening round. In the second round Parkview, who had one of the better defenses in the state, outscored them 26-23 in the overtime win.

The Wolverines opened up their 2012 season with a big 32-30 win over Gainesville and will look to do the same this year. Gainesville is paced by Clemson commit Deshaun Watson, who quarterbacked the Red Elephants to the Class AAAAA State Championship in 2012. Gainesville averaged 45.0 points per game last season, and the senior has the weapons to match it in 2013. If you like shootouts then this is your game.


3. Camden County vs. North Gwinnett GEORGIA DOME (Aug. 24)


This game features Class AAAAAA powerhouses who will look to continue their winning traditions in 2013. Camden County will start a new era as former head coach Jeff Herron left for Class A Prince Avenue Christian after losing in the state semifinals to Norcross last season. Welton Coffey steps in as the new head man and will face his first challenge in the Dome against one of Class AAAAAA’s most consistent programs.

North Gwinnett has won 10 or more games in seven consecutive seasons. Bulldogs’ head coach Bob Sphire will have his son Hayden starting at quarterback this year. Sphire is used to losing his assistant coaches after every season as they take bigger and better jobs, but this year’s loss could have an impact. Former defensive coordinator Mo Dixon has been one of the best coaches in the state, and has left for Byrnes in South Carolina for a similar position. Luckily former Grayson defensive coordinator Robert Andrews is stepping in to save the day.

On offense the Bulldogs have runningback CJ Leggett who transferred in from Chattahoochee. Leading in the trenches is 6-foot-6, 271 pound tackle Mitch Hyatt who is currently ranked as the No. 4 2015 prospect in the country. This past week, Hyatt was among the first players invited to play in the inaugural Georgia Elite Junior Classic . North Gwinnett has the best receiving corps in the state with Nate Brown, Caleb Scott and Daniel Imatorbhebhe.


2. Plant, Fla. at Sandy Creek (Aug. 29) 


The Sandy Creek Patriots cruised to the Class AAAA state championship last season and claimed their third state title in four years. Head coach Chip Walker and his squad have high expectations this season, and will once again be the team to beat in Class AAAA. While the Patriots face the challenge of repeating as champions, they will have to also prove themselves against one of the best schools in the country to open the season. On Thursday, Aug. 29. Plant High School out of Tampa, Fla. will travel to Tyrone, Ga. to play in a nationally televised game. Plant has won four state championships since 2006.

Under head coach Robert Weiner, the 2006 Plant Panthers went 15-0, winning their first Florida State Football Championship by defeating the defending 2005 champions, Nease High School 25-21. In 2008, Plant won the state title under current Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray’s heroics. Headlining with Murray was All-American TE Orson Charles who also went to Georgia and currently suits up for the Cincinnati Bengals.

In 2009, Plant erupted in the playoffs and outscored its opponents 201-53, and defeated national powers Lakeland and Manatee to win another state title. Leading the team was QB Phillip Ely (Alabama) and RB James Wilder Jr. (Florida State). The championship ranked Plant in the top 10 teams in the nation at the end of the season.

The following season Plant entered week 1 as the No. 1 team in nation according to Maxpreps. Plant reached the 5A state championship, but the result was a loss to that season’s consensus national champion St. Thomas Aquinas 29-7.

In 2011, Plant won the Class 8A State Championship, and once again finished the season in the nation’s top 10 after beating out No. 3 ranked Miramar for the title. Starring for the 2013 Panthers is Jake Fruhmorgen, a four-star offensive tackle, who stands 6-foot-5, 278 pounds. The junior has offers from Alabama, Arizona, Auburn and Clemson. Ray Raulerson lines up at the other tackle position and is committed to Tennessee. The 6-foot-4, 279 pound senior is the leader of the offensive line.

On the defense, Andrew Beck is a well-sized interior linebacker that is committed to Texas. Beck stands 6-foot-3, 227-pounds and his physical presence is matched with a great grasp on the game. Beck will be one of the main guys trying to slow down the Sandy Creek running game. Mazzi Wilkins is a lengthy cornerback with offers from Ball State, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. The three-star will be lining up on Sandy Creek’s all-state receiver Demarre Kitt.

There is tradition and stability in the Plant program and Weiner’s team has been recognized five years in a row for achieving the highest team GPA in their county.

Playing Plant is a big test, but if anyone has the firepower and experience to come out victorious against the out-of-towners it is the Patriots and Sandy Creek is currently ranked by as the No. 5 team in the country for 2013.

The Patriots managed to outscore their final six opponents 266-43 in 2012, and the only game within two touchdowns was a 31-20 victory over Burke County in the quarterfinals. Each week averaged out to a 35-point average margin of victory. Quarterback Cole Garvin threw for more than 2,700 yards as a junior, and his top target, Clemson-commit Demarre Kitt returns after hauling in 68 passes for 1,151 yards and 11 touchdowns. Garvin is 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and committed to Marshall on June 14. Kitt is considered one of the most skilled receivers in the country and made his commitment to the Tigers on May 30.

“He [Demarre] can do a bit of everything,” said Walker about his 6-foot-1, 182-pound playmaker. “He runs great routes. He catches the ball really well, and once he catches it he is hard to bring down. That’s what I think makes him the best wideout in the state.”

There is talent to go around on the offensive side of the ball, but when a big play is needed, Kitt’s number is often dialed in.

Kitt’s partner in crime is 6-foot-3 wideout Justin Sumter, who gives Garvin another Division I receiving target to throw to. Sumter has been a reliable weapon and is receiving interest from Western Kentucky, Ball State, Appalachian State, and Georgia Tech. This will be a big game and season for the senior and if Kitt receives the double team, Sumter could make Plant and the opposition pay.

Complimenting the aerial assault is probably the best backfield tandem in the state. Eric Swinney is a 5-foot-10 back with offers from Ole Miss, Florida State, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Arkansas and many more. Adjacent to Swinney is Delvin Weems who displays the same versatile athleticism out of the backfield as Swinney. These two guys will force a revolving onslaught of speed and downhill running right into the mouth of the talented Plant defense. In 2012 both guys rushed for over 1,200 yards and averaged just south of nine yards per carry.

“I hope both our guys [Swinney and Weems] set the pace [offensively] this season,” admitted Walker. “They are both dynamic ball carriers. They can both run through you, they can both run around you. Either one of them can do anything. We are just blessed to have two of them in the same group.”

This all-state duo’s most impressive feature is that they will only be juniors this upcoming season and the Sandy Creek backfield will be set for at least another year.

“The big thing is these guys kind of feed off of each other,” said Walker. “If one is having a good game, then the other one wants to step up and do the same thing. That’s big in games that may come down to the end.”

The third option in the backfield will be Maceo Brown, who will likely see more time at fullback this season. Brown is a very capable ball carrier and adds the dimension of a fullback with the ability to race out of the backfield and go the distance. Brown will be a major contributor to this star-studded offense and the three-star back and notorious hardworker helps drive the team.

“This will be the football game to watch this year. No matter who wins or loses,” tweeted Brown. “[This is a] Great test for both programs.”

Defensively, the Patriots allowed only nine points per game last season. Their 44.0 points of offense was matched by one of the best defensive units in the state. Replacing cornerback Shaquille Wiggins (UGA) and safety Corey Griffin (Georgia Tech) will be a challenge, but Walker has plenty of available options.

Ronnie Blackmon will only be a sophomore this year, but Blackmon already has picked up offers from Akron and Georgia Tech. Javon Jackson will play at safety and has Walker’s confidence heading into the season.

“Jackson has a chance to be a really really good player this year,” said Walker.

The “rock” of the secondary will be Brian Miller, who started every game last season as a sophomore and led the Patriots in interceptions.

In the trenches is 6-foot-1, 290-pound Chris Williams, who is described by Walker as “the best defensive lineman we’ve ever had.”

It will be left up to Williams to penetrate Plant’s experienced offensive line and open the gaps for the Sandy Creek linebackers to do work.

“Offenses have to account for him [Williams] and that just opens it up for our very good linebacking corps,” revealed Walker.

Williams committed to Ole Miss on Aug 1 and is poised for another breakout season.

It is difficult to pinpoint when Sandy Creek played its best football last year, because the season as a whole was so dominant. In the state championship game, the Patriots beat Ridgeland 45-10 with a running clock in the fourth quarter. During all of their multi-touchdown blowouts, underclassmen got valuable varsity experience and saw time even deep into the playoffs.

“The majority of these guys have that experience of playing under the lights on Friday night,” said Walker. “I think it’s huge and even if they were not playing, we have played in so many big games that just being there they kind of understand what it’s all about.”

All-pro NFL receiver Calvin Johnson put Sandy Creek on the map 10 years ago while suiting up for the Patriots, and their string of state championships and recent success has grown the spotlight around the program. This game will be a defining moment in the school’s history, and in terms of measuring sticks, Plant is as good as it gets.

Garvin has only lost one game as a starter for Sandy Creek and entering his senior season gives him the chance to wrap up one of the better careers for a Georgia high school quarterback.


1. Washington, Fla. at Norcross (Aug. 24)


Norcross finished 2012 with a Class-AAAAAA Championship and a 15-0 record. Out of the 22 starters they return 16. One of the key players lost was quarterback Joseph Wilber (West Georgia), but they replaced him with Milton transfer AJ Bush. On defense is Lorenzo Carter who will likely be the top recruit in the country all season. Miles Autry returns as the Blue Devils explosive playmaker, and their offense attack looks improved. Norcross won its first two 7 on 7 tournaments this summer, and their defense appears as fast as any in the state. The Blue Devils Defense held Colquitt County to -15 yards rushing and forced four sacks in their preseason scrimmage with the Packers.

When they have the pads bucked up we will see that their game speed and ball skills are matched with their strength and power. Norcross is the preseason No. 3 team in the nation and this game will be on ESPN. In 2012 it was Miami Central, FL coming to Grayson that was the big Georgia vs. Florida matchup. Miami Central is one of the best schools in the state of Florida, and showed up with lots of confidence. Florida’s speed attack was no match at all for the physicality of a Gwinnett County football team and Grayson embarrassed them 35-3.

Washington, FL will likely come into the contest well aware of Norcross’ ability, and they have a roster of returning talent to throw the Blue Devils’ way. Washington won their state championship last year 35-7 over Bolles, FL and like Norcross, are in the top 25 in the nation heading into 2013. Nigel Bethel is a cornerback with offers from Miami, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas Tech. Treon Harris is a dual threat quarterback who holds offers from FSU, Arizona, Boston College, Clemson and FIU. Harris will be a three-year starter this season. Lamar Parker is a blazing fast wideout with offers from West Virginia, Boston College, Cincinnati, FIU and Florida State. A key matchup will be Norcross’ three wideouts over 6-foot-4 against the solid secondary. This game is a must watch.

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