Reason for Paws

Panthers, Cougars lead preseason football poll

by Chris Goltermann

A fresh face emerged atop the Region 3-AAAAAA football standings in 2012. Langston Hughes slowly gained respect as it experienced its first winning season in the program's short, but equally lackluster history. Heading into 2013, however, 3-AAAAAA's football coaches aren't doubting the Panthers chances of a repeat his fall.

A Hughes lineup that expects two of the region's most dangerous offensive threats, as well as eight starters on defense returning to this year's lineup, was voted as the team to beat in Region 3-AAAAAA following a vote of the division's six coaching staffs and three media members on Monday.

The Panthers garnered five of nine first-place votes during a preseason meeting held at Orchard Hills Golf Club, where respective coaching staffs shared their thoughts for the upcoming football season.

Locals Newnan and East Coweta finished second and third, respectively, while anxiously awaiting Thursday's start to fall conditioning in helmets. Both teams are conducting annual Ironman events this week while also participating in Carrollton's annual 7-on-7 tournament.

In just its fourth season of varsity football, Hughes experienced its first major success last fall, winning the 3-AAAAAA championship and finishing 10-2 with seven more wins than its previous season.

The Panthers' starting lineup expects to be again be loaded with talent, led by fourth-year starter Kenny Moxie at quarterback, running back Keion Davis and lineman Jahil Mathis-Ellis back for senior campaigns on offense.

Joining that group are eight returners on defense led junior end DeAndre Walker, the region's Defensive Player of the Year last fall.

Depth, however, could be Hughes' biggest weakness in 2013, with the program unable to host a spring football game in May.

'The big thing is we lost quite a few kids about 23, 24 seniors, a lot of them started with us in the program,' said Panthers assistant Travis Smith. 'We've had a good summer workout wise, but don't have the numbers and depth after our first tier guys.'

Langston Hughes finished with 47 points, just two ahead of Newnan, which picked up two first place votes. No ballot listed the Panthers finishing lower than fourth place while Newnan was picked to place no worse than third.

The Cougars enter the season with four starters back on both sides of the ball including juniors Bailey Bryant and J.K. Britt at quarterback and running back. The offense also returns linemen Anferney Turner and center Myles Moran.

Senior linebacker Tonarius Portress - a third-year starter - expects to anchor a defense that loses safety Tray Matthews - last year's Most Valuable Player in 3-AAAAAA. Matthews is expected to start as a freshman this fall at Georgia.

'I think there's some areas we might be better than last year and I think some areas where we're probably not going to be as good at,' Newnan head coach Mike McDonald said. 'We're probably going to be playing more sophomores than we're used to playing and that always concerns you as a coach. But we feel like they're going to be pretty good players.'

Rival East Coweta - coming off its first sub-500 season since 1987 - also garnered a first-place vote while finishing third in the preseason poll with 37 points, eight behind Newnan's 45.

The Indians played one of the division's toughest nonregion schedules in 2012 and will face the same gauntlet this fall, including games against a pair of state finalists in Lovejoy (13-2) and Sandy Creek (15-0), the latter of which won its third GHSA championship over a four-year span.

This whole summer there's been a lot of question marks, but we've had about 90 to 100 kids consistently come in for workouts. The kids this year have had a better focus on what we're putting them through in the conditioning part of it, setting certain goals, and it's helped us out a lot,' East Coweta head coach Clint Wade said. 'The kids attitudes are better and they're more involved with what we're doing, the scheme of things than the previous season. We've got a few question marks again defensively we're not too sure about. But offensively we feel like that we have a nucleus of some pretty good players to get the ball to the right people.'

Despite coming off last year's 5-7 record, the team should benefit from a much larger group of returning contributors off a young roster in 2012.

'We had a lot of sophomores last year that contributed that really didn't need to be out there on the field last year getting playing time,' added Wade. 'But that's important and we feel like that'll carry over into this year for our entire football team.'

Wade also picked up one of head coach Chip Walker's former assistants at Sandy Creek among two additions to the staff. Jamie Glover will coach the offensive line while Ahmand Tinker joins the ECHS defensive staff.

Tri-Cities had the other first-place nod, but it was the lone vote higher than a fourthplace finish while picked to again finish fourth this year following a disappointing 4-7 record in 2012. The Bulldogs, which produced four Division I linemen, were coming off three consecutive campaigns of .500 or better including a 10-3 mark in 2011.

Tri-Cities head coach Kenneth Miller, whose staff went through several changes in the offseason including the addition of former Georgia Bulldog Jonas Jennings as defensive coordinator, return just two starters on both sides of the ball including quarterback Karim Wallace.

'I've got some kids who can make some plays, but we are a young team,' admitted Miller. 'So it kind of feels good to be off the radar.'

Douglas County made strides under first-year head coach Jason Respert last fall, though it was unable to translate into a playoff berth despite possessing All-Region First Team quarterback Ellis Richardson following a 2-8 season.

The Tigers hope to have running back Juanya Smith and fullback Travis Beard back after suffering seasonending injuries prior to the region schedule. Junior Jared Askew, a standout athlete who attempted just six passes in 2012, has been tapped to replace Richardson, who threw for 1,467 yards and had 408 rushing yards, 168 of which came against East Coweta in early November.

'All of our guys, no matter what year they were [last year] were freshmen for us,' Respert said. 'We two platooned almost everybody. We went from a group last year that were allergic to lifting weights to them now being honed in on it. We're hoping that changes our mentality as well to being a more physical team.'

Depth and size, however, remain obstacles, especially up front where Respert expects to play linemen on both sides of the ball for the first time in his coaching career.

Westlake, meanwhile, will begin the 2013 season with its third new head coach in as many years. Bryan Love, who previously coached at Shiloh and Camden County, takes over a lineup that went winless for the first time in program history. Love has hired former Dacula head coach Jared Zito as his offensive coordinator. Zito led Dacula past Newnan in the second round of the 2011 Class AAAAA state playoffs.

Love and Zito enter the year with a three-man battle at quarterback that includes senior Demetrius Beverly, an expected starter at linebacker. Also back is First-Team All-Region defender Tyrone Pope, who expects to start in the middle of the unit.

'We're trying to change the mentality of the program,' Love said. 'We had over 100 kids come out for spring and there's always strength in numbers. We're trying to create competition at every position, which is good.'

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