5 teams to watch

121116 hs fitz

The Benedictine Cadets leave the field after defeating Fitzgerald 49-26 in the Class AA state championship on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016 at the Georgia Dome. (Jason Getz for the AJC)

Welcome to the first Class AA blog of the 2017 football season. Last AA season brought us a number storylines (found at the bottom of this season recap post) headlined by the Benedictine Cadets endearing Hurricane Matthew and capturing their second title in three years with a 15-0 record.

Coming into 2017, the Cadets maintain their No. 1 ranking in the AJC’s preseason poll and they also own the top spot in Maxwell’s preseason ratings. Despite their preseason status, they are no lock to repeat as champions. In fact, AA hasn’t crowned a back-to-back champion since Buford, which won four consecutive titles from 2007-10.

Here’s a look at five teams to keep an eye on in 2017:

Benedictine

2016 results: 15-0; Region 2 champions; Beat Fitzgerald 49-26 in the AA championship.
2017 outlook: The Cadets haven’t lost a regular season game since Oct. 17, 2014 when Vidalia beat them 35-28. They haven’t lost a game since Fitzgerald shocked them 54-28 in the 2015 quarterfinals. Graduations claimed a number of key playmakers on both sides of the ball — including ATH John Wesley Kennedy — and one of the Cadets top leading rushers, Tyleek Collins, transferred to Hapeville Charter.

But the Cadets have a strong, perennial contending program led by coach Danny Britt, who enters his seventh season at Benedictine, and keeping the cupboard stocked deep with talent hasn’t been a problem for them. As they did last season, the Cadets open their schedule against Glynn Academy, which this year is ranked No. 9 in AAAAAA.

Fitzgerald

2016 results: 13-2, Region 1 champions; lost to Benedictine 49-26 in the AA championship.
2017 outlook: The Purple Hurricane have huge shoes to fill in both the personnel and coaching staff departments. On the field, they lost their workhorse back JD King, who is now at Oklahoma State after finishing his prep career with more than 5,800 rushing yards. On the sidelines, they lost coach Jason Strickland, who compiled a 54-14 record in five seasons with the Purple Hurricane, including guiding Fitzgerald to the championship game the past two seasons and to the semifinals in 2014. Strickland left to coach Pierce County.

However, they return AJC/Georgia High School Football Daily Preseason Class AA All-State Team selections James Graham (QB) and Donterious Milsap (LB). Strickland will be replaced by first-year coach Tucker Pruitt, who returns to Fitzgerald from Valdosta, where he served as offensive coordinator for the AAAAAA state champion Wildcats. Pruitt played quarterback for Fitzgerald under his father, Robby Pruitt, who compiled a 120-20-1 record and is the Purple Hurricane’s all-time winningest coach.

Fitzgerald is ranked No. 3 and opens the season against AA’s No. 2 Hapeville Charter on Aug. 18 at Banneker.

Callaway

2016 results: 13-1; Region 5 champions; lost 49-10 to Benedictine in the AA semifinals.
2017 outlook: The Cavaliers are coming off one of the most exciting finishes of the 2016 season, beating Screven County 35-34 in the quarterfinals with a 98-yard drive in the game’s final minutes, including a 47-yard Braylon Sanders reception with 17 seconds remaining. Sanders is at Ole Miss now, but Callaway remains stocked with D-I talent, highlighted by preseason all-state selections D.J. Atkins (RB), Keiondre Jones (OL) and Lichon Terrell (DL).

The Cavs — ranked No. 6 — open the season with AAAA’s LaGrange (2-8 last season) on Aug. 18 at Callaway Stadium before playing Handley of Roanoke, Alabama on Aug. 31 in Columbus. Handley won Alabama’s Class AAAA title last year and is the state’s No. 16-ranked team regardless of classification, according to AL.com’s preseason poll.

Hapeville Charter

2016 results: 10-4; Region 6 champions; lost to Fitzgerald 42-21 in the AA semifinals.
2017 outlook: The Hornets are coming off the most successful season in the program’s history, which enters its seventh year under coach Winston Gordon. It was a season of firsts for the Hornets, including their first double-digit-winning season, first region title and first playoff win, a 42-0 shutout of Monticello. Not bad for a team entering the season unranked.

There’s no flying under the radar for the Hornets this season, however. They’re the state’s No. 2 team and are stacked with talent, including the return of quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams and five AA preseason all-state selections: WR Rory Starkey, OL Ousman Traore, DL Kingsley Enagbare, DL/LB Caleb Kelley and DB Chris Smith. As mentioned earlier, they also added Tyleek Collins from Benedictine, who rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns in the AA title game.

The Hornets will put their high expectations to the test right away against No. 3 Fitzgerald.

Pepperell

2016 results: 10-2; Region 7 champions; lost to Benedictine 51-13 in the quarterfinals.
2017 outlook: Dragons coach Rick Hurst has the program set to be a perennial contender in his third season at the helm. After back-to-back losing seasons under Jim Shiflett, Hurst has guided the Dragons back-to-back winning seasons and playoff appearances. They went 7-4 in AAA in 2015 and 10-2 last year, which included their first quarterfinals appearance since 2008 and their first region title since 2006.

They enter the season ranked No. 7 and return AA preseason all-state selection Tae Hammond (RB). They open the season with AAAA’s No. 10 Ridgeland on Aug. 25.

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Some helpful links ahead of the 2016 season

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