Hey guys/gals. I’ll be your humble correspondent for all things Class AA high school sports for the coming school year, so I suppose an introduction is appropriate here.
I’ve been covering high school sports in Georgia for about 10 years now, ever since an intrepid sports editor tentatively agreed to throw some part-time work to a clueless recent grad from a modest university three states away. A tip for those entering the job market: if you volunteer your services for peanuts (literal ones), somebody will probably put you to work.
Since then, I’ve mostly focused on high school sports in Northeast Georgia. Of course, there’s been some overlap with Class AA, but this’ll be my first year digging into the classification statewide. I’m looking forward to it, because I’m a fan of small-town/small-school sports. That’s where I’m from, and that’s what I played (luckily for me, because I doubt the demand was high elsewhere for slow-footed split ends who specialized in downfield blocking).
But I digress. Obviously.
There’s a lot to get to, so let’s get started, continuing with the theme of introductions .
As you may have seen, the AJC’s preseason rankings were unveiled Sunday. Here, we’ll take a deeper look at the top 10 in Class AA.
1. Greater Atlanta Christian
Last year: 10-2, second round, second in 6-AA
Notes: The Spartans have won 10 games in both seasons under coach Tim Hardy, including a run to the semifinals in 2012, but they haven’t been able to claim dominance in their own region. Defending state champ Lovett has won the league title in back-to-back years, and prior to that it was Buford that always seemed to keep the Spartans stuck on second fiddle. Despite winning 70 percent of its games in the last 13 years, GAC’s last region title came in 2001. However, the Spartans appear poised to compete for the 6-AA and state championships this fall.
RB/DB Micah Abernathy, 6-1, 187
- Preseason All-State RB
- Four-star cornerback (247sports.com composite rankings) with offers from UGA, Ohio State, Oregon and most of the rest of the country
- Two-time defending state champ in the 400 meters
- Ran for 1,664 yards (10.8 avg.) with 20 TDs last year
WR/DB Darius Slayton, 6-2, 180
- Preseason All-State WR
- All-State last year with 31 receptions, 940 yards and eight TDs
- Another four-star prospect with offers from everybody
- Two-time defending state champ in the 200 meters
LB Tyler Cooksey, 6-3, 220
- Preseason All-State Linebacker
- Committed to Georgia Tech over offers from multiple schools across the Southeast and beyond
Last year: 14-1, state champ, Region 6-AA champ
Notes: Yeah, 6-AA looks pretty tough. The Lions have never missed the postseason under Mike Muschamp and the last time they were left at home for the playoffs was 2003. This year, they’ve got 15 total starters returning, but will have to find replacements for Grant Haley and Charlie Ingram, the Class AA Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, respectively. Having a returning starter at quarterback and a Division-I prospect back on the defensive line should help ease the transition.
DE Jack Gearon, 6-4, 230
- Preaseason All-State selection
- Scholarship offer from South Carolina, among others
QB Willie Candler, 6-1, 183
- Preseason All-State selection at punter
- Senior with three years as a starter already under his belt
- 1,303 passing yards, 648 rushing yards last season
RB Jay Harris, 5-8, 192
- Showed good speed and the ability to run through tackles as a sophomore last fall
Last year: 13-1, semifinals Region 2-AA champ
Notes: The Cadets have improved each year under coach Danny Britt, from 5-6 in 2011 to 8-4 in 2012 and setting a school record for single-season wins last fall. They’ll have to replace two of that team’s top three rushers, but there’s no shortage of weapons at Benedictine. Prior to their 10-7 loss to Lamar County in the semifinals, no game was closer than a 21-point margin – and that was a 35-14 win over Calhoun in the quarterfinals.
WR/DB Brad Stewart, 6-2, 180
- Preseason All-State
- All-State honorable mention last season with 30 receptions, 698 yards and 11 TDs
- Offers from Cincinnati and Marshall, among others
QB Stevie Powers, 6-0, 160
- 1,500 passing yards, 67 percent completions, 16 TDs, 6 INTs last year
RB Chance Jackson, 5-10, 171
- Ran for 785 yards (8.3 avg.) and a team-high 18 TDs last year
DL Phillip Burke, 5-11, 240
- Leading returning tackler after recording 82 stops in 2013
4. Brooks County
Last year: 12-2, semifinals, Region 1-AA champs
Notes: The Trojans must’ve been pleased when coach Maurice Freeman returned to Quitman in 2008. In 10 seasons under Freeman over two separate tenures (1994-97, 2008-present) Brooks County has never had a losing record and have averaged 9.8 wins per season. In the 10 seasons Freeman was coaching elsewhere, the Trojans averaged six wins, never advanced beyond the second round, and won double-digit games only once — 1998, the year after Freeman left. The Trojans haven’t been eliminated before the second round since Freeman returned. To repeat that success this year they’ll have some offensive skill players to replace, most notably All-State quarterback Malkolm Parrish and wide receiver Deric Herring.
WR/DB Exavius Medlock, 5-11, 160
- Preseason All-State DB
- 27 receptions, 934 yards, 8 TDs last year
RB/DB Ahman Brown, 5-9, 175
-Transfer from Lowndes
- Ran for 304 yards (6.7 avg) and 4 TDs last year
QB Demontay Jones, 6-1, 190
5. Heard County
Last year: 10-2, second round, 5-AA champs
Notes: In 40-plus years of football, the Braves have never experienced the extended run of success they’ve had under coach Tim Barron. In his 12-year tenure, Heard County has only one losing record and missed the playoffs only once. The Braves went from 0-11 to 10-2 in his first year in what was only the second time in school history with double-digit wins. Since then, they have won at least 10 games four or more times, but have yet to advance beyond the quarterfinals. Heard County fans have reason to be optimistic that could change this season. The Braves have a significant number of contributors to replace from the team that averaged 41 points per game last season, but led by All-State running back Duranta Dunson, the cupboard is far from bare.
RB/DB Duranta Dunson, 5-10, 185
- Preseason All-State RB
- Ran for 2,193 yards and 39 TDs last year, while recording 103 tackles and 4 INTs on defense
- Nearly set single-game state record with 463 rushing yards in a 61-57 loss to Jefferson in the second round of last year’s playoffs
OL Levi Brown, 6-4, 280
- Preseason All-State
- Scholarship offers from Marshall and Georgia State, as well as a host of FCS schools
QB Emory Jones, 6-2, 165
- Freshman who is expected to earn starting job under center
TE/DE/LB Elijah Toney, 6-2, 225
Last year: 11-1, second round, 8-AA champs
Notes: After a five-year lull in which they failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs, the Tigers have experienced a resurgence under coach Robby Robinson, winning 21 games in the last two seasons and running away with the 8-AA title last fall. The region slate should be a little easier this year, as Jefferson, the only team to stay within two touchdowns of the Tigers in the regular season, has moved up to Class AAA. And while last year’s run ended in a disappointing 48-14 loss to Bowdon in the second round, the Tigers return key players in the trenches, their starting quarterback and their leading rusher.
QB Deandre Harris, 6-4, 200
- As a sophomore last year, he completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,577 yards, 23 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Also ran for 454 yards.
RB Jacquavious Blackburn, 5-10, 175
- Led the team in rushing with over 800 yards (8.2 avg) as a sophomore
OL/DL Tremond Ferrell, 6-1, 280
- Preseason All-State DL
OL Nikita Fair, 6-5, 285
-Scholarship offer from Georgia State
Last year: 10-2, second round, second in 2-AA
Notes: The last two seasons have been the Indians’ best since the end of the Sid Fritts era, when they won 45 games over a four-year span in the early 2000s. After claiming the 2012 region title and finishing second last season, Vidalia is looking for its third straight year of double-digit victories under coach Lee Chomskis. To do so, the Indians must find a replacement for Tra Hardy’s 1,600-plus rushing yards and 24 TDs, as well as much of the offensive line that opened holes for him. Three all-region offensive linemen from last year’s team have graduated.
QB/DB Jordan Black, 6-1, 185
- Preseason All-State as athlete
- Expected to take over at QB after leading the team with 678 receiving yards while starting at WR last year
TE/DL Josh Eason, 6-2, 240
RB/DB Devin Johnson
Last year: 11-2, quarterfinals, second in 5-AA
Notes: When the playoffs roll around, it’s a good bet Bowdon will be there. Dwight Hochstetler, one of the winningest coaches in Georgia, is entering 27th season as coach of the Red Devils, and during that time, they’ve missed the playoffs only once. While the success is unquestioned, Bowdon is seeking its first region title since 2005, and must replace key pieces of the offense, including running backs Chris Keith and Jarod McKey to make it happen this year. Look for Darnell Holland, who turned in a big performance in the Red Devils’ 48-14 win over Washington-Wilkes in the second round of the playoffs, to be integral to Bowdon’s success this year.
RB Darnell Holland, 6-0, 175
OL/LB C.J. Brewer, 6-2, 251
OL/DL John Ayers, 6-1, 250
TE/DE Aaron Bradley, 6-3, 210
Last year: 7-4, first round, second in 3-AA
Notes: After a rare losing season in 2012, the Fighting Irish returned to the postseason last year and are now hoping for a return to the form they showed in the mid-00s when they won at least 10 games in five straight seasons. Working in Dublin’s favor is the fact that defending region champ Laney is now competing in Class AAA. Laney was the only team to top 14 points against the Irish in region play, and four players who earned all-region status last year are back from last year’s Irish defense.
TE/LB/DL Juwan Wells, 6-3, 230
- Preseason All-State at DL
- Offers from Troy, Old Dominion, among others
RB Larry McGirt, 5-10, 180
LB Josh McRae, 5-11, 205
10. Lamar County
Last year: 14-1, state finalist, Region 4-AA champ
Notes: After the most successful season in school history, one that ended tantalizing close to a state championship, the Trojans are starting over, but that doesn’t mean they’re starting from scratch. They must replace their top skill players on offense and coach Franklin Stephens, who left for Ware County. But new coach Jamie Adams, promoted from defensive coordinator, has previous head coaching experience, going 26-2-1 in two seasons at Woodland (Ala.), and the Trojans have strength in the trenches. The opportunity is there for Lamar County to win at least 10 games for the fourth straight year, and look for defense to be the calling card again after the Trojans allowed only two teams (both in the playoffs) to break 20 points last year. Prior to 2011, Lamar County had one 10-win season in 40 years of football.
OL James Banister, 6-0, 250
- Preseason All-State
DL Rashad Johnson, 6-1, 250
DL Alex Gardner, 6-0, 235
That’ll do it for today. I had originally planned to include a bit on each team’s schedule, but we’re already pushing up against 2,000 words, so we’ll save that for later. Check back Thursday for a look at this weekend’s big games. If you want to talk high school football in the meantime, or if you want to let me know what you’d like to see in this space going forward, you can reach me on twitter @thebholloway or just leave a comment.