New kid in town: Newnan sophomore QB to get his shot under center
By DOUG GORMAN
(Editor’s Note: The following is the first of a series of stories taking a glance at spring football practice around county high schools)
Newnan’s Mike McDonald probably thought he had seen it all during his 19 years as a high school football coach.
When the Newnan Cougars open the 2012 football season in August on the road against Marietta, it will be under the direction of its third starting quarterback in three years. That’s not the unusual part for McDonald.
It’s the youth movement at quarterback that will be a different experience for the Cougars’ coach.
If all goes as expected, McDonald will turn the quarterback duties over to rising sophomore Bailey Bryant.
“I have never had a situation like this before,” McDonald said. “This will be my 19th year in coaching high school football, and this will be the first time I have ever had to have a sophomore start.”
Bryant was named the starter coming into spring practice and as the Cougars go through their second week of the allotted 10-day sessions, he hasn’t done anything to drop down in the team’s depth chart.
The 6-foot-2 Cougar quarterback earned his stripes with a solid performance on the junior varsity during his 2011 freshman season.
He also gained valuable experience last year after he got the chance to participate in spring practice even though he was technically still in middle school.
“I am glad I had a chance to play on the junior varsity instead of playing on the freshmen team,” Bryant said, “It really helped me get ready for this year.”
McDonald has plenty of confidence in his young quarterback.
“We knew we were going to be in this situation” McDonald said. “He has matured. He has got a strong arm. He understands the game. He wants to be good.”
Bryant is already turning into a student of the game.
“He gets in there and he watches a lot of film. He has a good head on his shoulders,” McDonald said.
Bryant says he learned a lot from observing quarterback Nick Smith last season. Smith waited three years to finally get his chance to start for the Cougars, and led the team to a 6-6 season, including a huge victory on the road against Valdosta in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs.
“He was a great quarterback,” Bryant said of Smith, who signed a scholarship offer with Reinhardt University and will be coached by Danny Cronic and son Drew, Reinhardt’s new offensive coordinator. “I was just able to pick up on different things by watching him.”
Newnan will benefit from the return of running backs JK Britt and Quinton Dix. Britt, a rising sophomore and Dix, a rising senior, were the Cougars’ main ball carriers late in the season after Bryant Ball shifted exclusively to defense at linebacker.
The Cougars’ projected starter is trying not to put too much pressure on himself as he gets ready for his first season of Class AAAAA football.
“I just need to get the game to slow down when I get out there on Friday nights,” he said. “We have a good group of guys. There’s good chemistry. When you have people up lifting you and giving you confidence, you feel better about stepping into that huddle.”
Newnan fans shouldn’t expect too many changes on offense just because there will be a sophomore quarterback piloting the offense.
“We are going to be a little more under center, a little more pro style, but we're are not getting too far away from what we did last year,” Bryant said.
The Cougars new starting quarterback knows how important the summer is going to be.
“We have a big summer coming up with passing leagues,” Bryant said. “It is going to be important for us to all work hard.”
Bryant will have a solid support system around him to help with some of his inexperience.
Senior Tray Matthews has walked in Bryant’s shoes and is ready to step in and be a mentor.
As a sophomore, Matthews played a major role in the Cougars’ season. His play in just his second year of high school football earned him an offer Georgia head coach Mark Richt to play for the Bulldogs starting next year.
So Matthews knows some of the pressure Bryant might be feeling.
“I had to come in and play behind Alec (Ogletree), just like he is going to have to come in and play behind Nick, so there can be some pressure there," Matthews said. “I am trying to tell him to just play your game, go out there and have fun.”
Keeping his Word:
As Matthews goes through his week of spring football practice, he knows all eyes are going to be on him come this fall as he enters his senior season. One thing local Georgia fans won’t have to worry about his him changing his commitment. Matthews was offered a chance to play at Georgia nearly two years ago after attending football camp in Athens, and he is ready to be a Bulldog once he moves on to the next level.
Schools continue to pursue Matthews nonetheless, with the junior posting that a Tennessee coach came to see him Tuesday afternoon on his Twitter page.
A a junior, Matthews had 72 tackles and three interceptions.
The Cougars won’t have a formal scrimmage to end two weeks of spring practice. Because of the final touches are still being put on the renovation of Drake Stadium and because practice was rained out last Wednesday, the Cougars will carry spring practice over until next Monday where they will conclude this year’s spring drills with a spring game on the practice field right after school.