Prep Football: Newnan faces much-improved HughesBy CHRIS GOLTERMANN
Maybe it’s best that Newnan got homecoming out of the way earlier this season.
Langston Hughes no longer fits the stereotype for an easy win.
“We went back and looked at the game film from last year,” Newnan head coach Mike McDonald said of a 38-21 homecoming victory over Langston Hughes in 2011. “There’s no comparison. That’s how much of a jump they’ve taken.”Two years ago, Newnan crushed Hughes 56-10 and each year the fledgling high school has gone through growing pains while playing a large number of ninth and tenth graders on the varsity.
But fielding seniors for the first time in the program’s history this fall, the Panthers entered the year with the most returning starters among 3-AAAAAA teams with seven players back on offense and all 11 returning on defense.
“Mature, I think, is the best word to describe them,” McDonald said. “They’ve had talent. But it’s been another year in the system. They’ve played good football.”
The early run, which began with a 26-14 win over a Creekside team that just improved to 5-1 with a win over Northgate, has included victories over former Region 2-AAAAA rivals Luella (27-7) and Newton (10-0) while allowing opponents a mere 7.5 points-per-game.
The only fla w on the schedule so far has been a 5-point loss at Wheeler after a final Panthers drie ended with an interception.
Otherwise, the offense, led by converted receiver Keion Davis at running back, has equally done the job so far.Davis ran for over 100 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Douglas County.
“They can spread you out and they’ll do some two-back stuff,” McDonald said. “They’re running the ball and doing a good job with it.”
Fourth-year head coach Willie Cannon, however, admits that facing Newnan is as much a litmus test.
“Newnan has been a constant playoff team so we are going to try to hopefully see where we are as a team.” Cannon told Maurice Dixon of the South Fulton Neighbor.
Hughes’ initial senior class of 21 includes five sophomores and four juniors that started last season in its 4-3 defensive scheme. They include linebacker Montavious Atkinson, who led last year’s lineup with 118 tackles. Ends DeAndre Walker, at 6-4, 210-pounds, and junior Jahlil Mathis-Ellis (6-3, 290) provide some size up front — something Newnan grew accustomed to in last week’s win to open the 3-AAAAAA schedule.
The Cougars took an ambitious step of their own last week while earning their third straight win and improving to 5-1. A late first-half surge where Newnan scored three times in a two-minute span, including back-to-back touchdowns off turnovers provided the turning point of a 34-16 win at Tri-Cities in a matchup of Region 3-AAAAAA’s preseason favorites.
Down 7-3 after one quarter, a 21-point outburst allowed Newnan to take a 27-10 lead into halftime following a 62-yard pass from Bailey Bryant to Tray Matthews and consecutive fumble recoveries by Tonaris Portress and Rodney Tennie inside the Tri-Cities 20-yard line. A punishing hit by Matthews from his safety position jarred the second ball loose.
“We had just scored on a long pass and then ‘Bam, we score on two plays.’ That was crazy,” McDonald said of a series of events that began on . The first [fumble] was a gift. A lucky bounce. The second one we popped him to get him to cough it up.”
Despite a size disadvantage against much larger Tri-Cities front lines, Newnan’s offense moved the ball consistently against the Bulldogs in a margin of victory that could have been worse had the Cougars not come up short inside the five-yard line at least twice.
“On offense I felt like we were able to move to the ball pretty much all night,” McDonald said. “Our offensive line is coing together and we’re playing much better. Our run game has taken off the last couple of weeks.”
Averaging under four yards a carry through four games this year, Newnan’s run attack equally got a boost from several hard runs from sophomore J.K. Britt, who struggled early in the season. Britt, however, has taken on a much bigger role on both sides of the ball while also used in the Cougars’ passing game as well as on defense for the first time.
“We ask J.K. to do so much. People tend to forget he’s just a sophomore,” McDonald said. “The last two games he’s run the ball hard. He had that one big run against Tri-Cities where he probably broke five or six tackles.”
Sophomore quarterback Bailey Bryant added his 11th touchdown pass of the season, six of which have gone in Matthews’ direction.
Newnan’s defensive line equally received a boost from the return of junior Mark Harris, who had five tackles including a pair of sacks, in addition to four hurries and a pass breakup last week against the Bulldogs.
“He played real well. It was good to get Mark back,” McDonald said of Harris, who has been out since re-injuring himself early in the win over LaGrange. “It was hard to do, but we wanted to be safe and wait until he was a hundred percent. We hoped to have him back for the start of the region schedule.”