Prep Football: Northgate Vikings work in full pads for first time
By DOUG GORMAN
The Northgate Vikings returned to the football field in full pads Wednesday for the first time since a heart-breaking loss to East Paulding last December in the second round of the playoffs, and head coach Tommy Walburn was pleased with the effort.
“I think for the first day, especially offensively, we lost so many guys, we are looking better than we did any time during the spring,” Walburn said. “They have working with the same group all summer.”
A year ago, Northgate posted perhaps its best football season ever, rolling through the regular season undefeated and finishing with a 11-1 record.
(To view photos from Wednesday's practice, visit http://photos.times-herald.com/mycapture and click on Sports / Football for the Northgate preseason practice photo gallery.)
Gone from last year’s team are The Newnan Times-Herald Co-Offensive Players of the Year Alex Lakes, who is now at Air Force, and Payton Usher, who signed a letter of intent to become part of Mercer University’s first football team in 70 years. Both running backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards a piece. Senior quarterback Brett Misutka passed for 967 yards and will also have to be replaced.
Senior Josh Harrison, last year’s backup, is ready to step into the role as the team’s starting quarterback.
“It’s his job right now,” Walburn said. “He has waited for this opportunity.”
Running backs Benton Washington and Marquis Jennings came out of spring drills as the leading candidates to replace Lakes and Usher, but East Coweta transfer Michael Willis gives the Vikings another weapon. Last season with the Indians, Willis rushed for 250 yards and four touchdowns and became one of 14 different ball carries for East Coweta.
A year ago, three running backs accounted for the Vikings success. In addition to Lakes and Usher, senior Kyle Kovacs was also one of the main cogs in the backfield
The Vikings defensive unit is ahead of the offense as most of its starters return to a unit that yielded just 11.9 points per game.
Defensive end DeAndre Johnson is committed to Georgia, Sean Spencer has verbally accepted Vanderbilt’s offer and defensive back Brandon Facyson plans on playing at Virginia Tech.
Northgate came into Wednesday’s first full day in pads after working out in helmets and shoulder pads for the first five days of practice to get used to the heat. The practice guidelines were put in place by the Georgia High School Association this summer.
“We had to do the mandatory five days, we were doing it in the morning, but I wanted to back it up to 7 p.m. because the heat guidelines are so strict, and we are also practicing at the time we are playing,” Walburn said.
One of the challenges facing Northgate this season will be competing in a new region. Now, that the Georgia High School Association has gone from five classifications to six, the Vikings have joined a subdivided Region 4-AAAAA.
The Vikings half of the league features Creekside (5-5), McIntosh, Starr’s Mill (5-5) and Whitewater (7-3). The other half of the region features Forest Park (1-9), Mt. Zion -Jonesboro (3-7), Mundy’s Mill (2-8), Union Grove (5-5), Ola (2-8), and Drew (7-4).
“We wanted to play a straight region schedule, but we got outvoted by Clayton and Henry County,” Walburn said. "The good thing is we are playing Whitewater, Starr’s Mill, and McIntosh, which in my opinion are rivals. Good teams to play, plus we are picking up Creekside, and you can pick up a rock and hit [the school]. We just feel there are some good teams we have to play.”
Northgate opens its season with a non-region game against Heritage of Conyers on Aug. 31.