High School Football
Cougars face Westlake in battle for 2nd place
by Chris Goltermann
You can typically tell what position athletes play at Newnan football practices by the color of the jersey — blue for the defense and white for the offense.
But lately, the whites have mixed with the blues — or vice versa —which hasn’t exactly been a bad thing heading into Friday’s showdown between the Cougars and Westlake, which enter with identical records of 5-3 overall and 2-1 in Region 3-AAAAAA while battling for sole possession of second-place with East Coweta.
Despite clinching a state-playoff berth with a 28-7 victory over Douglas County last week, Newnan’s final two regular season games — both at home — will be equally crucial to the Cougars’ playoff destiny with both a much-improved Lions team and the rival Indians (4-4, 2-1) all battling for home field with potential first-round game.
With his team practicing again this week across the street in the shadow of Drake Stadium, head coach Mike McDonald understood how important another region win would be in trying to clinch home field with Camden County, Colquitt County and Lowndes all battling for the top-three seeds out 1-AAAAAA. Two of those traditional football powers will likely host the third and fourth-place finishers out of 3-AAAAAA.
“We want to be over there if at all possible,” McDonald said looking in the direction of the Drake Stadium press box from across the street.
Securing a win on Friday against a Westlake program that has righted itself following its first-ever 0-10 season won’t be an easy task considering the Lions have won five of its last six games. The only slip was a 14-7 loss at East Coweta in a game that wasn’t decided until the closing minutes.
First-year head coach Bryan Love has helped lead a turnaround with the program, which had plenty of pieces to build around. Eight starters returned on offense and six on defense for Westlake, which has alternated between quarterbacks Demetrius Beverly and Julian Jones while relying on noseguard DaQuan Hawkins and linebacker Tyrone Pope on the other side of the ball.
“We knew they was a young team last year when we played them on their Senior Night and they had maybe eight or nine [seniors] when they were announced,” McDonald said. “They’ve always had good athletes. Coach Love has done a great job. He’s got them playing with a lot of confidence and swagger, and I mean that in a good way.”
Love hired former Dacula head coach Jared Zito as offensive coordinator with the Lions now running an offense similar to the one Dacula used to hold off Newnan 32-21 in the second round of the 2011 Class AAAAA state playoffs. The Cougars’ offense, however, has some different wrinkles since the last year’s game with Westlake.
Newnan gave senior fullback Tonarius Portress — used primarily as a blocker in short-yardage situations — a bigger role in the offense last week and his first eight carries of the season generated 93 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 28-7 victory over Douglas County. It included two scores from the starting linebacker’s defensive teammates.
Portress impressed in his debut with a bulldozing 12-yard score and then rumbled nearly 70 more for the eventual game-winning score midway through the third quarter for the first of 21 unanswered points against the Tigers (2-6, 0-3) “We knew he could run the ball, but he surprised me a little bit on that last one going 70 yards,” McDonald said. “By the time he got to the 30 and then the 20, I’m like, ‘he’s going to take it the whole way.’”
As much as Portress helped give a struggling Cougars offense a boost against Douglas County, Newnan’s running game may be in even better shape when one of its white jerseys that was relegated to playing with the blues on defense, was able to cross the line of scrimmage again.
Junior running back J.K. Britt was with the offense in practice on Tuesday taking the brunt of snaps in Newnan’s base scheme and looking equally impressive after returning from a pair of ankle injuries that relegated him to just two rushing attempts over the past four games.
Another positive sign were the six turnovers created by the Cougar defense last week, which included four interceptions. Along with one from Britt, two were returned for touchdowns on a 50-yard runback by Frankie Williams and a 25-yard return off a screen pass by defensive lineman Mark Harris.
“That was the play of the game,” said McDonald of Harris’ return, which pushed a 21-7 lead with 6:06 left in the third quarter.
Williams, meanwhile, continues to be what McDonald called “a pleasant surprise” in the secondary while continuing to make the most of a 5-9, 150-pound frame.
“He’s not the biggest player, he’s not the fastest player,” McDonald said of the junior. “But he just has a knack for knowing where the ball’s going to go.”