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Todd HolcombTodd Holcomb

Can they repeat? A look at the seven reigning state champions

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Here is a look at Georgia’s seven reigning state champions. Can they do it again? You decide.

Norcross

2013: 13-2 (AAAAAA)

Returning starters: 2 offense, 2 defense

Key players: DE Jean-Baptiste Kouassi, DT Dorian Kithart, OT/DT D’Andre Plantin, WR Jared Pinckney, PK Blake Bingham

Key losses: DE Lorenzo Carter (Georgia), LB Kevin Mouhon (Cincinnati), TE Chris Herndon (Miami), WR Myles Autry (Georgia Prep Sports Academy), WR Clinton Lynch (Georgia Tech), QB A.J. Bush (Nebraska), OL Ryan Northrup (Georgia Southern), DB Jordan Noil (Appalachian State), RB Josh Boyd (Appalachian State)

Summary: Norcross lost 11 seniors who signed with Division I programs, almost every player with significant yardage on offense, the team’s four top offensive linemen and four leading tacklers. But coach Keith Maloof, coming off two state titles, doesn’t sound like a coach in rebuilding mode. “Defensively, we’ve got a chance to be really good, as good as we’ve been,” Maloof said. “The kicking game is going to be special, better than it’s ever been. Offensively, we have to let the group mature together.” Maloof was pleased by a recent scrimmage against Lowndes, a 24-20 loss, but Norcross led 14-0 before being undermined by turnovers. The new quarterback will be senior Griffin Barker or Jacob Gassert. The top running back should be junior Jamir Billings. Watch for a sophomore slot receiver named Jared Simpkins, who is “on his way to being a Myles Autry kind of player,” according to Maloof. “We’re going to be fine,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of great sophomores. The senior class has been waiting its turn. Obviously we can’t get beat 55-0 [as the 2013 Blue Devils did in their opener against Miami Central] and get this group back like last year. This group can’t get beat up like that too quick. We have to have success early. Hopefully, it’s not rebuild but a reloading kind of deal.”

Conclusion: The example of Grayson in 2013 – a 4-6 finish after a 25-2 run with a once-in-a-lifetime group of seniors – makes it hard to imagine that Norcross can be a legitimate state contender with all the talent that went out the door in tassels. But Maloof’s confidence is compelling.

Creekside

2013: 15-0 (AAAAA)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense

Key players: QB Felix Harper, RB Bricen Terry, WR Jayson Stanley, OL Venzell Boulware, OL Marquel Harrell, LB Joshua Moon

Key losses: RB Dexter Knox (Purdue), LB Chris Collins, LB Elliott Berry (Tennessee), DB Evan Berry (Tennessee), DB Cameron Jackson (Georgia State)

Summary: Creekside returns eight starters from an offense that averaged 42.5 points per game and put up 50-plus in the semifinals (55-10 over Kell) and final (52-28 over Tucker). That would include QB Harper (2,567 yards passing, 36 TD passes), RB Terry (1,383 yards rushing) and WR Stanley (16 TD receptions). Yet the offensive line is the team’s best unit on either side of the ball. The tackles, Boulware (leaning toward Ohio State and Tennessee) and Harrell (committed to Auburn), are among four up front who have D-I offers. Defense will be a makeover project. The secondary is entirely new. The best holdovers are all-region players, DT Alex Johnson and LB Moon. “We’re talented enough,” Creekside coach Olten Downs said. “We feel we have all the pieces it takes, but do we have it mentally? Last year, our guys were hungry, and we had strong senior leadership. It’s a matter of whether we’re willing to work.”

Conclusion: It was a storybook season for Creekside, which won its first state title, dedicating the season to DeAntre Turman, the star cornerback who died from injuries in a preseason scrimmage. The offense is clearly championship-caliber. The Berry twins will be missed. So will Collins, the region’s defensive player of the year. If Creekside can slow teams down, it can be another great year. It doesn’t hurt that Tucker, the 2013 runner-up, moved up to AAAAAA.

Griffin

2013: 15-0 (AAAA)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense

Key players: WR Christian Owens, WR Keyston Fuller, RB Malik Miller, DB Jordan Colbert, DL Nic Williams, DB Anforne Stroud

Key losses: QB Jaquez Parks (Kennesaw State), WR Trey Willis, DL Nikyiem Floyd, LB Telly Sloan, HC Steve DeVoursney

Summary: Gone is the all-classification player of the year, Parks, who passed for 338 yards and rushed for 216 in the state final against Carrollton. The new quarterback will be Anforne Stroud, a senior who started five games as a freshman when Parks was injured. He was the free safety last season and intercepted four passes, returning two for touchdowns. Griffin didn’t have a major Division I recruit last season, not even Parks. This season, the Bears might have four – Colbert (committed to Auburn) and receivers Fuller (Duke), Christian Owens (Georgia) and Darquavious Mangham. “Yea, we’re going to toss the tater around a bit,” new coach Jarrett Laws said. Griffin lost not only its head coach, DeVoursney, but both coordinators. Laws, formerly head coach and program-starter at Drew, has brought in Jamie Aull (offense) and Mike Rozier (defense). Leading-tackler Williams returns. He had 20 stops behind the line of scrimmage last year.

Conclusion: This team might have more raw talent and speed than the state champions did, but Parks’ leadership and production – 3,640 yards passing, 1,329 rushing – are profound losses. The team is not as deep. But if the Bears can still get the ball to their athletes, they should be awfully good again. Said Laws, “We know the road to success. We just have to figure out how to travel it when everyone knows we’re coming.”

Buford

2013: 15-0 (AAA)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense

Key players: RB/LB Joshua Thomas (12 D-I offers), TE/DL Isaac Nauta (more than 25 offers), DB David Curry (Virginia), LB Austin Smith (Tennessee), DT Quay Picou (Tennessee), OL Nick Polino (UNC), LB Konnor Houston 82 (three D-I offers)

Key losses: LB Korie Rogers (Clemson), RB Thomas Wilson (Missouri), DB Terrance Wilson (Buffalo), DB Tre Neal (Central Florida), DL Donte Gordon, OL Harrison Morgan

Summary: Buford moves up one class to AAAA armed with more Division I prospects than any school in its path. Five have committed to ACC or SEC schools, and another five have D-I offers. Those returning include the leading rusher (Thomas) and tackler (Houston). Three of five offensive linemen are back. Even without Rogers, the team’s best player in 2013, the linebacker corps is easily one of the state’s best with Houston, Smith and Thomas in the mix. The only question mark is quarterback, where the efficient duo of Montgomery VanGorder and Taylor Mitchell is graduated. The Wolves also will miss their top corner, Terrance Wilson, and Neal from the secondary.

Conclusion: As one veteran prognosticator once put it, “Never pick against Buford.” This is a typically talented Buford team. Nothing less than a state title will be considered a success. This time, fans will have a better idea of where Buford stands statewide. In addition to the move to AAAA, where schools such as Griffin and Sandy Creek will challenge the Wolves, Buford also will face Class AAAAAA power McEachern (Sept. 5) and reigning Florida Class 3A champion Trinity Christian (Aug. 23).

Lovett

2013: 14-1 (AA)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense

Key players: QB Willie Candler, OL/DL Nathan Offutt, DL Jack Gearon, RB Jay Harris

Key losses: RB/CB/KR Grant Haley (Penn State), LB Charlie Ingram, OT Dej Suber, G/DE Patrick Keough, S Tyler Shiflett

Summary: Lovett has a likely record 33-member senior class and most of its starters back from the school’s first championship team since 1971. That includes three-year starting quarterback Candler (1,303 yards passing, 648 rushing), three of five offensive linemen and a defense headed by DT Gearon, a preseason all-state player. The big question is whether the presence of a dynamic star player, Haley, was what put Lovett over the top last season, or just icing on the cake. Haley, now at Penn State, impacted the game like few in any classification in 2013, when he rushed for 1,420 yards, scored 26 touchdowns and intercepted six passes. LB Ingram, another all-state player, stirred the drink on defense and will be almost as sorely missed. Coach Mike Muschamp says Lovett has had stars such as those before and pointed to Andre Hicks in 2007. He believes the difference was the team unity that was forged through a tough early schedule, in particular during a two-overtime, 41-38 victory over Marist. He points to halftime of that game, when he couldn’t get in a word edgewise because his team leaders had taken over. “It was great to see that sort of cathartic moment,” Muschamp said. “It was a huge step for our program. They made that happen. From then on, nobody got credit for what was going on. It was all for Lovett.”

Conclusion: Lovett will miss Haley. What they won’t miss is Calhoun and Jefferson, AA powers of a year ago that moved up. Also gone is Westminster from Region 6-AA. If only Greater Atlanta Christian had made the jump. This Lovett team might not have quite the same firepower and grit as in 2013, but there’s also a smidgeon less standing in the Lions’ way.

Marion County

2013: 13-1 (A public)

Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense

Key players: RB/WR/DB Lorenzo Smothers, RB Johnny Royal, OL Tray Smith

Key losses: PK A.J. Wells (Middle Tennessee), DL Quartez Freeman, DE Rodrick Bishop, LB Brandon Green, LB Terrance Riley

Summary: Returning are 1,000-yard rusher Royal, all-region offensive lineman Smith and the team’s best all-around player, Smothers, who made first-team all-state as a sophomore. Smothers is the player who rushed for 105 yards and intercepted a pass in the state final against Charlton County. The only losses on the offense were all-region center Dustin Pickren and a wide receiver in a run-based offense. The defense took a larger hit, especially the front seven, as Freeman, Bishop, Green and Riley all were first-team all-region picks. The biggest loss is the all-state specialist Wells, the difference in more close games than perhaps any other kicker in Georgia the past two years.

Conclusion: Fresh off their first state championship, the Eagles remain the team to beat in the Class A public-school division.

Aquinas

2013: 14-0 (A public)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense

Key players: QB Liam Welch, RB Ruben Garnett, WR Daniel Lindsey, DL Napolean Williams, DL Griffin Scott, PK/P Justin Thompson

Key losses: OL Jeff Fox, OL Ryan Bussey, DB Antonio Clark, LB John Morris, TE/DL Shalom Alvarez

Summary: Aquinas returns its best skill players – Welch (1,904 yards passing, 30 TD passes, only four interceptions), Garnett (1,928 yards rushing) and Lindsey (38 catches, 743 yards) – which will allow the team to remain balanced on offense. That was a big deal in the championship game last season, when Aquinas beat Calvary 27-7. Garnett rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown, and Welch hit Lindsey for two TD passes. Thompson is a real weapon. He made 12 of 13 field-goal attempts, put 57 of 88 kickoffs in the end zone and averaged 41 yards per punt. Aquinas lacks depth on the lines and is young on defense. Three first-team all-Region 7 linemen – Fox, Bussey and Alvarez – were major pieces to Aquinas’ first state title. “I think as long as we stay healthy and take it one day at a time, we have a good chance to make another deep run,” Aquinas coach James Leonard said. “I told the guys the other day there’s a lot of books about how to get to the top. Not a lot on how to stay there.”

Conclusion: Graduation losses were significant, but hardly fatal. And unlike last season, when Aquinas and everyone else had to overcome an overwhelming preseason favorite, Eagle’s Landing Christian, there is no clear-cut team to beat among the Class A privates. Aquinas should start the season ranked highly.

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