Hughes again team to beat in Region 3-AAAAAA
by Chris Goltermann
Mike McDonald obviously meant his words in jest. But amidst a table of Region 3-AAAAAA head football coaches on Thursday morning, there may have been the tiniest glimmer of hope among the majority that Langston Hughes' 6-4, 210-pound star defensive end D'Andre Walker had graduated early.
After all eight of his colleagues had taken turns addressing their respective team's outlook for the 2014 season, McDonald turned to Hughes counterpart Willie Cannon and announced, 'Now you're going to tell us D'Andre's already in college, right?'
Unfortunately for Newnan, East Coweta and the rest of 3-AAAAAA's schools, it's no joke.
Once again, Walker and the Panthers seem to be the team to beat in a new region alignment that may only get tougher for both schools out of Coweta.
Garnering 11 of a possible 13 first-place votes among assembled coaches and media members, Langston Hughes was an convincing favorite to repeat as champions in 2014, though there was as much reason for hope among the two locals.
While schools have continued workouts through the summer, the preseason kicks into gear on Monday for the first allowed use of helmets.
Both East Coweta and Newnan will then have nearly three full weeks of drills prior to preseason scrimmages on Aug. 14 and 15, with the Indians traveling to Griffin on a Thursday and the Cougars hosting LaGrange the following night at Drake Stadium.
Heading into McDonald's sixth year as head coach, Newnan was picked to finish second while earning one of the remaining two first-place nods. East Coweta, meanwhile, was third among balloting, an encouraging sign heading into head coach Steve Pardue's first year with the Indians.
At least as far as size, the challenge escalates in a region that expands from six schools vying for four state playoff berths to eight.
The new 3-AAAAAA merges five holdovers from two previous seasons in the GHSA - Douglas County, East Coweta, Hughes, Newnan and Westlake - with three schools from Cobb County, all of which played in 4-AAAAAA during the last reclassification period.
The frontrunners, however, seem to remain the veterans of 3-AAAAAA for the past two years. While Hughes led with 99 points with 12 of their 13 votes placing them first and second, Newnan and East Coweta weren't too far behind with 86 and 73, respectively.
The Cougars weren't picked to finish worse than fourth, while the Indians had 11 of its 13 votes putting them in the playoffs.
Westlake, following a rebound season that saw the Lions win five more games than in 2012, was fourth among balloting with 67, followed by Douglas County (44), Campbell (40), South Cobb (34) and Pebblebrook (24).
Both locals are going through its share of transitions on or off the field. With depth at running back, Newnan's offense may be more ground-oriented in a multiplele this fall while still maintaining two equally capable quarterbacks in senior Bailey Bryant and junior Chancellor Johnson.
Bryant threw for 1,494 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013.
The program is coming off a 6-5 playoff season that was plagued by injuries, some of which gave playing-time to younger faces.
'Running back is probably the strength of our team,' Cougars offensive coordinator Kenny Morris said of a group led by seniors J.K. Britt and Kelvin Khayyam and junior Darryel Hines, the latter of which came on for Britt while he was relegated to just defense for the final six games of the 2013 season.
Defensively, the Cougars give the full reins to former co-coordinator LaVarrett Pearson after sharing duties with new athletic director Jeff Bryant in a 3-4 setup.
'We've kinda changed up what we did in the past,' Pearson said. 'We started that in the spring and carried it as we went into the summer doing that. It's about the hardest, since I've been here, that the kids have worked.'
In his first six months at East Coweta, Pardue has equally seen progress while getting readjusted to high school football following a two-year stint as a college assistant at the University of Kentucky.
'I still don't know a whole lot about my guys. We only had 10 days of spring and I wish we could have had summer before spring,' Pardue said. 'We tried to get enough offense and defense to know each other. We're still getting to know each other. But the kids are working hard.'
The Indians move on after also losing two key faces in the lineup, Times-Herald Player of the Year Markell Boston and Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Gemmel, both of whom went on to sign with Auburn and Garden City (Kan.) CC, respectively.
A staff that combines longtime members and new faces has already begun shifting players in the lineup. The Indians' depth on defensive line has allowed coaches to move Gemmel's younger brother Jeremiah, a freshman starter in 2013, to linebacker.
'He looks the part right now,' Pardue said. 'But he's still young.'
Defensive line, meanwhile, could be the key to whether Langston Hughes can repeat.
Led by Wa l ker, who recorded 21 sacks in 2013 en route to Region 3-AAAAAA Player of the Year Honors, the Panthers return seven starters from a defensive unit that held five division opponents to a combined 17 points last year while finishing undefeated to go with a 10-2 overall record.
Cannon, however, isn't convinced yet that his team is about to cruise to a repeat once region play begins on Sept. 26. Hughes graduated its top players at running back, receiver and offensive line - all among four First-Team All-Region selections a year ago.
'Those three new teams (Campbell, Pebblebrook and South Cobb) come from a good region. I think it makes this new region stronger from top to bottom,' Cannon said. 'There's a lot more to [making the playoffs].'
While the Panthers averaged nearly 35 points per game in 2013, defense should be Hughes' mainstay this fall.
The 6-3, 210-pounder, who had 108 tackles a year ago has garnered Division I offers throughout the SEC as one of the top 300 seniors in the nation. But three teammates up front also return on the defensive line, all of whom earned First or Second Team All-Region honors.
'It'll probably be tough for him to put up those same numbers. Our opponents are probably going to try and double-team him most of the year,' Cannon said.
Also back among Hughes' linebackers is senior Montavious Atkinson, who had a team-high 137 tackles in addition to two interceptions and five caused fumbles.
Westlake, which made a rebound in Bryan Love's first year as head coach, may not be able to sneak up on opponents as it did in 2013. Seven starters, including senior nose-guard Daquan Hawkins, who had f ive sacks last year, return for the Lions on defense. Five more starters are also back on offense.
The lineup will be considerably younger at Douglas County, where third-year head coach Jason Respert said his program is 'in the middle of a youth movement.'
'We've got a lot of sophomores and juniors,' he added.
The Tigers return junior quarterback Malik Oliver (5-11, 175), but will have to find players for him to distribute the ball. It's one reason why converted cornerback, senior Donovan Richardson, has been moved full-time to wide receiver.
The three newcomers from Cobb collectively finished 10-20 overall last year in 4-AAAAAA while missing the playoffs. Two also have new head coaches.
Each , however, has potential.
Campbell, under former Hillgrove assistant Ryan Brady, has five returning starters on offense including 6-2, 315-pound center Preston Fussell from a team that finished 4-6 last season.
'We're going a completely different direction than what Campbell ran last year,' Brady said of a play that includes using an H-back. 'Our strength is probably our backfield.'
South Cobb also makes a transition following a 3-7 campaign after Sherrod Rainge was promoted to replace predecessor Michael Youngblood, who resigned.
Rainge, an offensive assistant under both Youngblood and Ed Koester, now at South Paulding, plans to use a spread attack while rebuilding a program that returns three starters on offense and just one on defense.
Rainge said Thursday that quarterback Kylil Carter has had an exceptional summer between 7-on-7 and 6-on-6 scrimmages. while throwing just one interception in 28 games.
Pebblebrook , wh i ch was a member of Region 4-AAAAA with East Coweta and Newnan in 2008 and 2009, rebounded from a winless 2012 season to finish 3-7 last year under head coach Tommy Macon.
The Falcons will have to replace quarterback John Johnson, who signed with West Alabama, with three contenders vying for the starting job. The line could be promising behind 6-foot-6, 360-pound senior Jose Diaz-Torres.
'We've got to figure out what we're going to try and do (on offense),' said Macon. 'Defensively we've got eight coming back who have substantial playing time.'