High School Football
Cougars' young offense from fall shows maturity in spring
by Chris Goltermann
Outside of a couple of gentlemen watching off to the distance who will be on college staffs come the fall, Tuesday's spring football practice at Newnan High had the look and feel for late August, rather than mid-May.
Thankfully, the Cougars will have 106 more days to prepare for their season opener on Aug. 29 at Carrollton. But there's been several over the first six practices of spring that have given head coach Mike McDonald a glimpse of the team's potential for 2014.
'I felt pretty good about where we were last Thursday,' he said, before rain washed out Friday's practice. 'We came out a little slower on Monday, but we're starting to pick it up again.'
From the temperature (a sweltering 86-degrees at 6 p.m.) to the atmosphere on the practice field, it felt like late summer for a program that is looking to build on last year's 6-5 record.
Newnan's schedule begins with a slate of three non-region games against top-notch opponents. In addition to a Carrollton team that finished as a state runner-up for the second time since 2010, it continues with games against Marietta and Sandy Creek, programs that finished last year, respectively, at 8-3 and 11-1-1.
Newnan's success has ebbed and flowed the past four years, peaking with a 9-3 mark in 2012 and a trip to the second round of the playoffs. Yet the program has increased its streak of postseason appearances to eight consecutive years heading into the new season.
Last fall became as much a battle for survival in Region 3-AAAAAA for a lineup that got increasingly younger, at least on offense, where injuries to junior J.K. Britt and starting center David Quesinberry thrust a larger group of sophomores into action.
'J.K. never quite completely was able to get healthy. I hated that for him. But the one that finally got to us was losing David,' McDonald admitted. 'That put us with three sophomores starting on the offensive line.'
The influx of youth in front of second-year starting quarterback Bailey Bryant saw Newnan score more than two touchdowns just once in the final six weeks of the season, the result of which came in a 28-7 win at Douglas County where the Cougar defense scored twice while relying on the running of senior linebacker Tonarius Portress.
Portress, who was the heart and soul of the defense, will be near the top of a group of graduating seniors that leave holes to fill.
The Newnan Times-Herald Defensive Player of the Year, though, had patiently waited for his time to become a leader after following a group of standouts that most recently included current Georgia defender Tray Matthews and former Bulldog and current St. Louis Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree.
'Definitely, this is a time you can see it,' McDonald said of emerging leadership. 'You see some of it during the winter in the weight-room. But this is a chance for a lot of them to show what they can do on the field.'
A new 3-AAAAAA alignment will now stretch into Cobb County with the addition of South Cobb, Campbell and Pebblebrook. Gone is Tri-Cities, which finished last at 1-7-1 in 2013.
Last year's weaknesses could turn out to be Newnan's greatest asset in 2014 in an offense that looked more than a step ahead on Tuesday. It comes thanks to a larger group of veterans both on the offensive line and in the backfield that had to adapt quickly in the fall.
Sophomore Darryel Hines led Newnan with 94 carries last year and junior Kelvin Khayyam, who posted a top-average of 6.7 yards per run, is also back to take some of the workload off Britt.
Along with four returners on the offensive line, sophomore tight end Dezmand Pleasant earned an 'attaboy' at one point with a seal block off the corner that sent a defender tumbling.
'We're not quite as deep right now at receiver as some of the other positions we have. We're more heavy on running back and tight end to go with all those linemen,' McDonald said.
The 6-5 Bryant, who threw for 1,415 yards and 10 touchdowns, is still poised for another strong year with rising junior Chancellor Johnson, with near the same frame at 6-4, 197 pounds, patiently waiting his turn while showcasing some of the same zip and precision on his passes.
While waiting for the return of All-County receiver Randall Arnold, Newnan has been rotating a group that has included junior cornerback Frankie Williams and freshman K.D. Satterwhite at the position this spring.
Meanwhile, Britt, at 5-10, 180 continues to attract the attention of college scouts almost daily. Michigan State has jumped into a mix that began with Clemson by last fall and now also includes Kentucky, Louisville, Ole Miss, N.C. State, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest - all with reported offers for the two-way starter at cornerback and running back.
Joining them in the past week has been visits on campus from Nebraska and Iowa, the latter coming during Tuesday's practice.
Britt rejoins Williams, another All-County defender, in the secondary heading into respective senior seasons. At linebacker, meanwhile, sophomore All-County standout Emanuel Bridges - who got a visit from West Georgia's new staff on Tuesday - may be next in line to follow Portress' rise to prominence after finishing behind his senior teammate with 82 tackles.
Five of Newnan's top-seven tacklers graduate from a lineup that yielded an average of 23.7 points-per-game.