Wheeler was perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 football season as the Wildcats battled for a spot in the state playoffs for the first time since 2006. Leading the Wildcats was a talented group of juniors that includes quarterback Elijah Staley and his all-Cobb County wide receiver Emanuel Beal. Staley is a towering 6-foot-6, two-sport star, with FBS offers from all over the country. He finished the season completing 154 of 287 passes for 1,801 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Staley-to-Beal connection manifested itself early in the season and the 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver finished the year with 855 yards and seven touchdowns. No Cobb County receiver returning to the field in 2013 accounted for more yards than Beal did last season.
This dangerous duo made the playoff berth possible and returned Wheeler to relevancy after the program stumbled to a 1-29 record over the 2008-10 seasons.
The Wildcats are still in contention for the Region 5-AAAAAA title in 2013, but will have to overcome the departure of Beal, who will instead suit up for an already-potent Hillgrove offense his senior season. Hawks coach Phillip Ironside has a slew of playmakers returning at receiver this season, but the addition of Beal could help push this offense to heights never before seen in Cobb County.
“This is as deep as we’ve been at wideout,” said Ironside.
Operating the offense at quarterback will be Ironside’s son, Elijah, who looks to be on the verge of a breakout season. Ironside started as a sophomore in 2011, but was injured before the 2012 season, and senior Troy Thompson got the starting job. Ironside came in as relief in several games and completed 32 of 61 passes for 519 yards and eight touchdowns in limited action. The 6-foot-1 quarterback is a dual threat and can take off and scramble at any point. Having a football coach for a father has benefited the passer in his progression and decision-making and he has shown the ability to protect the football. Turnovers, especially early in games, plagued the Hawks’ offense last season but the younger Ironside has the ability to fix that.
“Our main goal this year is to turn the ball over less and Elijah did a great job last year by not throwing any interceptions,” said Ironside.
Coach Ironside has always stressed his intent to spread the football offensively, and Beal’s arrival will allow him to maximize the depth at receiver. Effectively sharing the football was evident last year when the Hawks came into the season without star running back Kenyan Drake, who had graduated and moved on to the University of Alabama. The offense split the touches and matched the productivity with an armory of playmakers.
Omar Black, Errol Breaux, Justin Denton and Zach Katz are all starting caliber receivers and the corps will have four players in rotation this year that found the end zone in 2012. Evan Engram played a lot of tight end while having the versatility to flex out wide. He ended the year as the team’s leading receiver and will suit up for Ole Miss next season. Without Engram, the receivers will become a bigger part of the offense and Hillgrove has the personnel for it.
“It [the depth] helps us because we will play four wide with Zach Katz at the slot,” said Ironside.
Katz was just one of the many Hillgrove players injured last season, and a healthy team in 2013 will leave Ironside with a multitude of options.
Running back Richardre Bagley broke his ankle last season, but showed glimpses of what Ironside expects to be his major role this season.
“I think he [Bagley] is going to be the guy to get us moving next season,” said Ironside.
Spring practice is about a month away so there is still time before Coach Ironside will get to see the full display and his newest exterior weapon take the field.
“He [Beal] is fitting in well,” said Ironside. “Our kids always have a really good work ethic, so we will make sure he has our work ethic too.”
Beal is ranked in the top 25 best players in Georgia heading into the season and has offers from Georgia Tech, Arkansas, Missouri and Vanderbilt according to 247sports. Emanuel’s younger brother DeAndre Beal will be a rising sophomore for the Hawks next season, and plays receiver and defensive back.