All the hard work has been put in…the 2019 season approaches like a welcomed storm amidst a drought. Here in the good ole state of Georgia, football is king. And we’re finally getting to that perfect time of year where we get to watch some of the best in the state battle it out under the bright lights of Friday night.
What was 2018 like? It was amazing! We had seven programs make the state playoffs, with four (Rabun, Commerce, Dawson, Habersham) making it past the first round. We were treated to five teams playing for a region championship (Rabun, Commerce, Dawson, Union, Jefferson), though only Rabun succeeded in capturing a fifth straight title. Those five teams combined to go 48-12 overall to be among the state’s best. It was on par with the historic 2017 season that was much of the same. Will 2019 live up to be as good as the past two seasons?
PRESEASON RANKINGS: Based on success from last season, outlook for 2019, departed talent, returning talent, schedule, region, coaching changes, you name it.
#1 RABUN COUNTY WILDCATS
2018: 11-2; 2A Quarterfinals; 8-AA Region Title
Coach: Jaybo Shaw
Strengths: Skill Positions, Defense, Reputation
Questions: Replacing talented OL
Impact Returning Players: Gunner Stockton, Braxton Hicks, Will Hightower, AJ Wheeler, Mason Sprinkle, Dawson Lathan, Phillip Roberson, Brody Jarrard
Crucial Losses: Austin Jones, Shawn Lovell, Jackson Webb, Brison Beck, Austin Sosebee, Zach Ferguson, Andrew Lovell
There are few question marks, per usual, for the Cats. The big question is how, if any, will the look and feel of the team differ with the Jaybo Shaw era opening up? We can expect him to have the same intensity on offense as he’s been calling the past few seasons, and with another year that blue-chip recruit Gunner Stockton has improved, look out! If the scrimmage against Franklin County on August 16 was any indication (a typical blowout, shutout win for Rabun), it’s a great sign of things to come. However, the O-line lost a massive amount of talent with All-State center Shawn Lovell, as well as Jackson Webb (also All-State) and Austin Sosebee. Trey Hightower will lead the line in its rebuild. The loss of All-State Austin Jones will be tremendous as well on offense, defense, and special teams. However, Braxton Hicks will be that go-to target at receiver, as the corp features him, newcomer Garrett Bragg, and holdover Dawson Lathan among others. Brison Beck’s leaving hurts too, as he was the featured back for the past two seasons. Brody Jarrard has shown signs of the same though, so look for him to be that guy. The defense will return AJ Wheeler, Mason Sprinkle, Phillip Roberson, and Hightower, which is a formidable group. Rabun is the early favorite for the 8-AA title along with Union once again, and another quarterfinal run or deeper seems like a good bet.
#2 JEFFERSON DRAGONS
2018: 8-3; 3A State Round 1; Region 8-AAA Runner-Up
Coach: Gene Cathcart
Strengths: Leadership, Receivers, Backs, Reputation
Impact Returning Players: Colby Clark, Donsha Gaither, Kade McNally, Carter Stephenson, Paxton Corkery, Christian Parten, Jacob Thompson
Crucial Losses: Zac Corbin, Sammy Elegreet, Garmon Randolph, Aaron Hall, Cole Potts, Gavin London
There is much to like about this group. The offense returns 2,505 rushing yards combined, led by Colby Clark, Carter Stephenson, Kade McNally, Donsha Gaither, Paxton Corkery, and Jacob Thompson. Will Clark return to quarterback, or will that go to last year’s emerging star Stephenson? With Sammy Elegreet, Zac Corbin, and Garmon Randolph all gone (834 receiving yards) leaving, that brings back only 122 receiving yards to a young receiving corp. The defense is partially intact from a year ago, as six key players on that side of the ball are gone. There’s enough skill though that they should reload just fine. Still, last year’s region runner-up finish and first round exit left a bad taste in these guy’s mouths. Look for a better 2019 as 25 seniors lead this team.
#3 UNION COUNTY PANTHERS
2018: 9-2; 2A State Rnd 1; Region 8-AA Runner-Up
Coach: Brian Allison
Strengths: Quarterback, Receivers, Defensive Secondary
Impact Returning Players: Pierson Allison, Sawyer Drake, Kyle Morlock, Jonah Daniel, Cayden Rich, Sloan Sutton, John Mancuso
Crucial Losses: Chad Buzzard, Brian Smith, Chayton Schafer, Jackson Colwell, Kanon Hemphill
These guys are solid in every department. Losing Brian Smith on special teams is a blow, as is the defensive prowess of Chayton Schafer. However, with Pierson Allison back for his final season, along with stud receivers Sawyer Drake and Kyle Morlock, the air attack might put up unforeseen numbers in 2019. Chad Buzzard’s yardage in the backfield can be replaced by Jonah Daniel’s emergence, and Allison will chew up tons of yards as usual. The defense has solid pieces like John Mancuso,, Sloan Sutton, and others will anchor the D. So badly we would love to see this group put up another 9-win season or better and earn their first-ever playoff win.
#4 DAWSON COUNTY TIGERS
2018: 10-2; 3A State Rnd 2; Region 7-AAA Runner-Up
Coach: Sid Maxwell
Strengths: Athleticism, Seniors, Reputation
Questions: Quarterback, O-Line
Impact Returning Players: Shawn Thomas, Riley Herndon, TJ Wilson, Dakohta Sonnichsen, Brody Howell, Daniel Brock, Maximos Moon, Isaiah Grindle, Bryce Bryant
Crucial Losses: Sevaughn Clark, Ahmad Kamara, Ryan Glass, Logan Barnes, Zac Baloga
It was the first 10-win season in school history last year for the Tigers. But gone is 3,300 yards of offense largely with the departures of Sevaughn Clark and Ahmad Kamara. The defense too lost two of the best to ever suit up in Logan Barnes and Zac Baloga. Huge shoes to fill, but the Tigers seem to always bring in a new crop that gleaned from the previous year. The good news is there are plenty of guys capable of filling the void with Shawn Thomas, Dakohta Sonnichsen, and Isaiah Grindle, who combined for 1,100 rushing yards last year. Brody Howell and Daniel Brock will be the leading tacklers returning to anchor that side of the ball, along with Bryce Bryant and Riley Herndon. The question will just be who the big names will be at the skill positions. There are 44 seniors listed on the roster, so experience and great coaching by Sid Maxwell will mean Dawson stays near the top.
#5 COMMERCE TIGERS
2018: 10-3; 1A State Quarterfinals; Region 8-A Runner-Up
Coach: Michael Brown
Strengths: Leadership, Quarterback, Athleticism, Speed, Reputation
Questions: Backs, Receivers, Defense
Impact Returning Players: Nate Ray, Sam Roach, TJ Trudnak, Trahvon Wiggins
Crucial Losses: Caleb Mason, Dylan Deaton, Levi Pate, Tucker Flint, Dajuan Wood, Tanner Lumpkin
1,600 rushing yards vanished with the departure of Caleb Mason, Dylan Deaton, and Dajuan Wood. That trio also accounted for a majority of the receiving yards. That group also combined with Levi Pate, Tucker Flint, and Tanner Lumpkin for over 300 tackles. That’s insane. It’s not all doom and gloom though. The Tigers always rely on the next man up, and Nate Ray is back under center as one of 25 seniors on the roster. Sam Roach will help him with the yardage. TJ Trudnak and Trahvon Wiggins will return to anchor the defense. It’s business as usual for Commerce. The question isn’t will they be good, but who will be the new names we are calling by the end of the season?
#6 STEPHENS COUNTY INDIANS
2018: 5-6; 4A State Rnd 1; Region 8-AAAA 4th Place
Coach: Wesley Tankersley
Strengths: Skill Positions, Depth
Questions: In the Trenches
Impact Returning Players: Hudson Spurlock, Gamarion Carter, Kenny Colwell, MJ Jones, DJ Jones
Crucial Losses: Charles Cochran, Kamon Taylor, Nikko Beady, Grant Dye
There’s a lot to like about the Indians. A very young group emerged last season with such promise for the future. Most of that group is back, led by Hudson Spurlock, Gamarion Carter, and Kenny Colwell as a perfect trio of skill players. MJ and DJ Jones certainly can push this team over the top. They don’t lack much, but in the trenches they could see a boost from last year’s performance in protecting the QB and getting after the opposing QB.
#7 HABERSHAM CENTRAL RAIDERS
2018: 7-5; 6A State Rnd 2; Region 8-AAAAAA 3rd Place
Coach: Benji Harrison
Strengths: Running Back
Questions: Quarterback, Defense, Receiver
Impact Returning Players: Jackson Clouatre, Arian Curry, Josh Pickett, Tanner Wade, David Escamilla, Joshua Wade
Crucial Losses: Donovan Curry, Tre Luttrell, Dontarius Bailey, Tracey Lowery, Tarin Westbrook, Luke Wilson, Daniel Matkovic
There are many more questions coming into this season for the Raiders than in recent years, but one constant is that a new Habersham player will be taking the snaps. The QB carousel has gone from Tre Luttrell last season, AJ Curry the year prior, and Cole Wilbanks the year before that. This makes four QBs in as many seasons. The tandem at WR is gone in Donovan Curry and DonDon Bailey, so the entire passing game will need to re-tool. Back from injury is junior RB Jackson Clouatre, who is the real deal. The Raiders’ defense needs identity, but there are plenty of guys who can step up this season as opportunities abound.
#8 WHITE COUNTY WARRIORS
2018: 7-4; 4A State Rnd 1; Region 7-AAAA 3rd Place
Coach: Tim Cokely
Questions: Running Back, Linebacker
Impact Returning Players: J Ben Haynes, Cooper Turner, Jared Jullian, Greg Wimer, Will Sampson, Jesse Thomas
Crucial Losses: Michael Mintz, Cody Versluis, Jay Lepkoske, Kurtis Havlen
The big questions are who replaces the production in the interior defense by Jay Lepkoske and Michael Mintz. Mintz and Kurtis Havlen also led the way in rushing, so someone will have to step up there as well. Another year means J Ben Haynes will be even better as he enters his junior season. Cooper Turner should be his prime-time target.
#9 LUMPKIN COUNTY INDIANS
2018: 3-7; No Playoffs; Region 7-AAA 6th Place
Coach: Caleb Sorrells
Strengths: Quarterback, Defense
Questions: Running Back, Offensive Scheme
Impact Returning Players: Tucker Kirk, Aaron Hopkins, Kevin Harkins, Drew Allison, Ethan Kline, Noah Adams
Crucial Losses: Luke Smith, Kyle Amburgey, Jonas Ramirez, Coleman Wendl
We put it as a question, but the offensive scheme is guaranteed to be exciting with Caleb Sorrells taking over. He did wonders at Stephens County, and has some good pieces in Tucker Kirk, Kevin Harkins, Ethan Kline, and Drew Allison. The receiving corp needs to be identified early if the passing game will be a thing in year one. Based on Kirk’s showing in the scrimmage, passing for two TDs, that seems to be something that is already shaping up. Aaron Hopkins is a legit next level player, and expect him to have a monster senior season and get some suitors lining up.
#10 BANKS COUNTY LEOPARDS
2018: 4-6; No Playoffs; Region 8-AA 5th Place
Coach: Jay Reid
Strengths: Quarterback, Defense
Impact Returning Players: Sawyer Pace, Braxton Simpson, Jonathan Moon, Sean Hall, Jace Bennett, Josh Stapleton
Crucial Losses: Terrence Walker, Jacob Lehotsky, Cody Dodge
The losses of Terrence Walker, Jacob Lehotsky, and Cody Dodge looms large. Walker and Lehotsky tallied some 1,500 yards of offense. However, Sawyer Pace is back at QB, while Jonathan Moon and Sean Hall 500-plus yards rushing, so the cupboard is not bare. Dodge is the top departure on defense. The good news there is that Braxton Simpson (80 TKL, 12 TFL) is back after leading in tackles last year, as is Pace (50 TKL), Jace Bennett (46), Hall (38), and Josh Stapleton (31). The defense should be pretty solid, if not experienced. The big question is who will be that go-to guy like both Walker and Lehotsky were on special teams as well as the featured weapon on offense.
#11 TOWNS COUNTY INDIANS
2018: 3-7; No Playoffs; Region 8-A 7th Place
Coach: Jason Roquemore
Strengths: Fresh Start
Questions: Depth, Quarterback, Offensive Playmakers
Impact Returning Players: Reece Hampton, Shane Sparks
Crucial Losses: Trent Bradshaw, Will Travis, Alan Gillis, Wesly Calhoun, Andrew Griffin, Blaine Rogers, Jake Parker, Tyler Swanger
Last year was tough, despite the many key players the team brought back from the first-ever playoff team in ’17. Jason Roquemore comes to Towns from Johnson with a chance to start things over for the Indians. There are so many open jobs, including all the skill positions. This makes it somewhat exciting to see who those players will be that break out in 2019.