Perhaps no level of Georgia High School Association football was shaken up more by the latest round of reclassification than Class AAAA, where five of last year's eight state quarterfinal teams are gone and several other big-time programs changed regions.
Region 7-AAAA returns mostly intact, though smaller. The region lost Gilmer and LaFayette, while Southeast Whitfield elected to play a nonregion schedule. The GHSA, however, threw the league a curve by adding Cedartown and Central-Carroll to the mix.
Cedartown, which went 7-4 with a win over state power Cartersville last season, has two of the state's top prospects in junior linebacker and running back C.J. Washington and senior quarterback and safety Jayden Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Washington, who recently committed to Georgia, had more than 20 sacks in 2019 and is rated by 247Sports.com as the nation's No. 5 inside linebacker prospect for the 2022 class. Johnson (6-2, 200) has committed to South Carolina and is rated by 247Sports as one of the top 25 athlete prospects in the nation.
Not surprisingly, state prognosticators quickly labeled the Bulldogs the team to beat in 7-AAAA, though a local trio of region holdovers hope to have something to say about that.
"We picked up two highly qualified teams," Ridgeland coach Kip Klein said. "Their records the last two years have been in the middle of the pack in that region, but look who they played with. Central-Carroll is going in the right direction and has a lot of good athletes. It's almost back to the days when we had the Daltons and those type teams in the region."
The Panthers overcame a horrible start to 2019 to win the region title in Klein's first year as head coach, and they return enough talent from that young team to contend again. What was a weakness to start last year, the offensive line, is now the team's strength, featuring massive tackles Jacob Klein (6-6, 305) and Tommy Lamb (6-5, 280) to go with 300-pound center Dylan Skates.
"We've got others with experience up front, but having those three guys back really solidifies us up front," Coach Klein said. "Overall, we're just a much more mature team, and our kids know they have to play like it every night because we won it last year and everybody wants to knock us off."
The arrival of transfer KeSean Eubanks should help offset the loss of the players responsible for most of last year's offensive production. The former Soddy-Daisy athlete will be moved all over the field, as will King Mason, a stellar defensive back who will also play some at quarterback. Jeremiah Turner (6-1, 220), a fullback and defensive end, has to stay healthy because Coach Klein said his presence cannot be replaced.
Heritage has the area's most experienced quarterback in three-year starter Nick Hanson, who passed for 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior last season. Those numbers, coach E.K. Slaughter hopes, will be blown away this year as the Generals, in part due to heavy graduation losses along the offensive line, will take to the air early and often.
"Up front we graduated all five linemen, guys who averaged 280 pounds across the board," Slaughter said. "We're definitely a lot smaller there, but they should be able to pass protect and pull well. The passing game is our strength, so we plan to air it out."
Hanson (6-4, 220) has a deep and talented receiving corps at his disposal in Dylan Bryan, Cade Kiniry, Logan Lowe and first-year player Ryan Heet. Defensively, the Generals will lean heavily on linebacker Zach Brown (6-3, 220) and end Jonathan Washburn (6-4, 220). The team has another strength in kicker Anderson Britton, a preseason all-state pick with long range.
Northwest Whitfield, which handed Ridgeland its only league loss in 2019, might also take to the air more this year as talented sophomore quarterback Owen Brooker looks to build off a sensational freshman season. His top targets are multitalented senior Matthew Redmond and junior Ray Morrison, who at 6-2 gives the team a threat over the top.
Veteran Bruins coach Josh Robinson has to find replacements for several top players on defense, though the second level, featuring linebackers Jake Fossett and Jordan McCamish, and the secondary, with Redmond, Keaton McQuaig, Damien Seritt and Dominique Smith, are experienced.
Pickens, a playoff team a year ago, suffered heavy graduation losses, including quarterback C.J. Streicher, who amassed more than 3,000 yards last season. With 1,000-yard rusher Jarod Whitmire back, the ground game should still be strong. The Dragons must replace seven of their top eight tacklers from 2019.
Team to beat: Cedartown’s top-tier talent could cause problems for the rest of the region.Watch out for: Ridgeland. The Panthers are going to cause trouble, too, behind a physical offensive line and a collection of playmakers that can rival Cedartown’s.Best game: There are a lot of tasty matchups involving league teams, but the Cedartown at Ridgeland game on Oct. 30 should carry a lot of weight.Dream schedule: The small region has created some interesting nonregion portions of schedules. Northwest may have the best of it, with Chattooga, Coahulla Creek and Gordon Central three of its four foes from outside the elague. The Bruins also get to host region dates with Cedartown and Ridgeland.Nightmare schedule: Say this for Ridgeland: The Panthers aren’t afraid of competition. They begin with state power Rabun County, follow with Class AAAAAA rival Dalton and end the nonregion portion of their regular season with a game at Calhoun. They are fortunate to get to host Cedartown and Heritage.Players to watch: The Cedartown duo of Jayden Johnson and C.J. Washington are elite prospects who star on both sides of the ball, as does Ridgeland’s Jeremiah Turner and newcomer KeSaun Eubanks. Heritage quarterback Nick Hanson will have a starring role this year, while linebacker Zach Brown is easily one of the region’s top tacklers. If you enjoy versatility, go watch Northwest’s Matthew Redmond, who will show up at running back, receiver, defensive back, punter and kick returner.