Cougars open season tonight

by CHRIS GOLTERMANN

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Newnan head coach Mike McDonald (background) watches a Cougars running back head up field during practice this week in preparation for tonight's season opener at home against Marietta.

Even a school play has a dress rehearsal. Newnan's football team, however, won't have such benefits tonight when the Cougars take the field for their 2013 season opener at Drake Stadium against a Marietta program that could be even more talented than the one that gave head coach Mike McDonald's teams fits in last year's 'Battle of the Court Squares.'

Newnan's scrimmage date with Griffin a week ago was cancelled due to wet weather that dominated a five-day period and the team did it's best to salvage the day with another intersquad scrimmage.

'It it was what it was and we came out here last Friday and we scrimmaged ourselves,' McDonald said. 'We tried to make it as game-like as we can, but when you don't have refs and not under the lights, it's not the same.'

Like any good director, though, the thought of heading under the spotlight tonight without much of an audition for a large group of sophomores, some of whom will be starting the year on the field, may seem unnerving for McDonald and his staff.

'We've got more sophomores starting than we ever have. Throw that on top of not having a scrimmage, (the margin for error) is nothing,' said McDonald, heading into his sixth opener as head coach. 'They're going to get their chance and as a coach, that scares you by playing so many young kids. But then again, they're pretty talented.'

Newnan opened last year with 10th grader Bailey Bryant as its starting quarterback and thrived en route to a 9-3 season, placing second in Region 3-AAAAAA and coming within a defensive stop of reaching the state quarterfinals.

Tonight's opener could have the same feel as a playoff game, with the Blue Devils returning a corps of skill players led by junior running back Kirvonte Benson and receivers Jordan Mathis and Marcus Bennett.

The 5-9, 190-pound Benson rushed for just under 900 yards a year ago and was the Class AAAAAA champion in the 100-meter dash in the spring. Mathis (5-11, 175) and Bennett (6-0, 175) return for senior seasons after combining for 122 receptions and 1,581 yards the past two years.

Junior Brenton Martin led the race entering the preseason to take over at quarterback, a role amply filled by current LSU freshman Anthony Jennings, who has already moved up to No. 2 on the Tigers' depth charts. Marietta sophomore James Baldwin, a left-hander, could also get a chance tonight.

Either way, it'll be an immediate challenge for a Newnan defense that has just four starters returning.

'There's no doubt about it. They have two of their top receivers back and their running back and they can really go,' McDonald said. 'The quarterback was the backup last year, but we saw him on film in the Kell [scrimmage] and we were impressed with him. Now he's grown and we know we have our hands full with him.'

Much of the nucleus of the defense remains in the hands of seniors, including a deep linebacking corps led by leading tackler Tonarius Portress. Josh Hill, Terrence Geter and Brandon Tennie are among returners that all saw ample time at the position.

Portress, who led Newnan with 126 tackles last year, knows that without a scrimmage, the team will have to be even more focused heading into tonight.

'It'll be the first look for us, so we have to be ready to handle it,' Portress said.

Newnan's secondary and defensive line are where younger and fresher faces will have to emerge. Outside of cornerback J.K. Britt and defensive ends Mark Harris and Anfenney Turner, most will be seeing more varsity snaps under the lights than ever before.

Marietta, though, will have its share of growing pains heading into tonight's opener led by a revamped offensive line that lost four senior starters.

McDonald understands mistakes will be made tonight. But the tempo of play is an aspect Newnan feels it has under its control.

'You always make some silly mistakes the first time out and unfortunately we could have got those corrected after a scrimmage,' he said. 'they're going to make mistakes, that's part of just growing up, The main thing is to make those mistakes going 100 miles per hour playing as hard as we can.' Bailey, meanwhile, enters this fall as an established starting quarterback who earned respect both through a year in which he threw for 1,786 yards and 16 touchdowns and one where he came off the bench nursing a shoulder injury in the second round of the playoffs to nearly lead his team back against Colquitt County in a 26-23 loss.

The junior signal-caller looked extremely sharp in practice this week while showing accuracy both in deep routes and in tight coverages.

Running backs J.K. Britt and Kelvin Khayyam, both juniors, will ease some of the sting from losing Newnan's top-two receivers from 2012. Both averaged over 6-yards a carry and finished with four touchdowns apiece in supporting roles last fall.

The offensive line has three key faces returning led by Turner at tackle. The Cougars are hoping seniors Chrisshawn Dix and 6-foot-8 basketball center Immanuel Griggs can step right in as starting receivers, with senior transfer Donterrious Snelling able to lineup in the slot or the backfield after starring at Trinity the last three seasons.

Regardless, McDonald has been pleased with how the team has held up through a fastpaced camp that hasn't allowed the opportunity for any breaks while also battling both steady rain and intense heat over the last two weeks.

'It's been a long camp, even though it's shorter for us. But we've had to rush things because we play this week early so we haven't even had a chance of giving the kids a day off. It's been go, go, go, go, go,' he said. 'But the kids have done a good job of getting here and practicing hard. I know they're going to be excited about it because they're tired of practicing. They want to go play somebody.'

• • •

MARIETTA AT NEWNAN

Tonight, 7:30 p.m., Drake Stadium 

Radio: Magic 98.1FM 

The Skinny: Series History: Newnan leads 6-4.

Last meeting: Newnan defeated Marietta 38-29 to open last season in Marietta.

2012 Records: Newnan - 9-3; Marietta 8-4

• • •

KEY PLAYERS

Newnan

ILB Tonarius Portress (5-11, 226, Sr.), DE Mark Harris (6-0, 225, Sr.), QB Bailey Bryant (6-5, 192, Jr.), RB/DB J.K. Britt (6-1, 177, Jr.), RB Kelvin Khayyam (5-11, 189, Jr.), OL/ DL Anfeney Turner (6-4, 272, Sr.), OL David Quesinberry (6-0, 189, Jr.), OL Christian Shellabarger (6-1, 223, Jr.), WR Chrisshawn Nix (6-1, 197, Sr.), WR Immanuel Griggs (6-8, 193, Sr.), WR/DB Donterrious Snelling (5-10, 152, Sr.), DB Tristan Bridges (5-11, 155, Sr.), DE Chris Porter (6-3, 209, Sr.).

Marietta

RB Kirvonte Benson (5-8, 185, Jr.), QB Brenton Martin (6-0, 160, Jr.), WR Marcus Bennett (6-0, 275, Sr.), OL Isaiah Borne (5-9, 215, Sr.), DB TJ Bulock (5-9, 165, Sr.), DL Christopher Floor (5-10, 220, Sr.), WR Jordan Mathis (5-11, 175, Sr.), OLB Andrew Thomas (6-3, 205, Sr.), LB Tyrell Tomlin (6-0, 223), LB Lawton Ward (5-11, 185, Sr.), K/P Ian Shannon (6-3, 180, Jr.) 

When Newnan Has the Ball: The Cougars ate up yards and the clock with methodical snaps that used short routes and screens to their advantage while alternating between the pass and the run. Look for much of the same early to get some rhythm going between quarterback Bailey Bryant and a new set of receivers. Bryant, however, isn't afraid to throw balls deep or into coverage and looked extremely sharp against Newnan's No. 1 defense this week in practice.

When Marietta Has the Ball: Look for the Blue Devils to try and establish a run-game behind speedy Kirvonte Benson, who was last year's 100meter champion in Class AAAAAA. New quarterback Brenton Martin will have the benefit of two top-receivers while making the first start of his varsity career. Jordan Mathis and Marcus Bennett have combined for 122 receptions and 1,581 receiving yards to go with 19 touchdowns over the past two years. Much of the Blue Devils' question marks center around an offensive line that lost four senior starters. Newnan's defense is equally green after returning four starters from last year's team.

Notes: Senior Brandon Tennie's name was inadvertently left off the roster in this week's Football 2013 Preview Section. Tennie, a returning outside linebacker, will be again wearing No. 9 for the Cougars…. Newnan assistant coach Hap Hines, a standout kicker at Marietta High before attending the University of Georgia, will be again be facing his alma-mater. The Cougars added new assistants Chad Blevins and Adam Daigler this season. Blevins takes over the offensive line duties for Randy Padgett, Blevins' high school coach while attending Carrollton High in the late 1990s. Each program had seniors move on to make immediate impacts in the Southeastern Conference. Tray Matthews (Newnan) is a projected starter at free safety at Georgia. Anthony Jennings (Marietta) moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart at quarterback at LSU.

Our Prep Pick: Yes, there are a lot more question marks than usual at Newnan with an influx of youth. But the returning pieces may still outweigh the question marks the Blue Devils have coming into the season. Either way, expect another tight game rivaling last year's contest in Marietta. COUGARS 27, BLUE DEVILS 21.



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