As Georgia prep football prepares to begin, Calhoun faces challenge in moving up

Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Calhoun's Jerrian Hames stiff-arms a Northwest Whitfield defender during a scrimmage on Aug. 9, 2019, in Calhoun, Ga.

CALHOUN, Ga. - While the challenge is a daunting one for the Calhoun Yellow Jackets in 2020, it is one the proud football program is meeting at full speed.

After failing to affect the program during the previous reclassification cycle with its out-of-district student multiplier, the Georgia High School Association's latest realignment handed Calhoun the rare distinction of being forced to move up two classes beginning this year.

The state's largest ruling body for high school sports also created a three-headed, championship-heavy Region 7-AAAAA that includes former Class AAAA schools Blessed Trinity and Cartersville. The three programs have combined to win eight state titles in the past nine seasons.

No other program currently in Class AAAAA has won a championship during that time.

"It's a challenge, but everybody here in the program is excited about it, from the players to the coaches to the fans," said Clay Stephenson, who is in his second year as head coach of the Yellow Jackets. "It's a unique opportunity to play some teams we haven't been able to play a lot. It's tough, but this is a year we have to make sure we're focusing on ourselves each week. We can't get into comparing or looking at our region schedule yet."

The numbers go deeper than titles. Blessed Trinity is 44-1 the past three years. Cartersville's Purple Hurricanes, undefeated title winners in 2015-2016 with current Clemson star Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, are 67-3 the past five years. Calhoun has three championships and is riding a 19-year streak of winning at least 10 games a year.

Getting that number to 20 will be difficult. The Jackets have just nine games in the regular season (though Stephenson is actively seeking a 10th game) and, in addition to Cartersville, Blessed Trinity and new league foes Hiram, Cass and Woodland-Bartow, they play nonregion games against Dalton, Cedartown and Ridgeland.

"We play some tough teams in the beginning, so the first half of the season we have to see what works and doesn't work and then adjust to our strengths and weaknesses," Stephenson said.

One area he won't have to worry about is the running game, where 1,500-yard rusher Jerrian Hames returns.

"He's really hard to tackle in space," Stephenson said of the speedy Hames. "One on one in space, we like his playmaking ability, and he's worked hard to improve in the pass game. He's really good knowing where his holes are supposed to be and where his blockers are. He's had a really good summer, and I look for him to kind of carry us on offense."

Of course, with the likes of Blessed Trinity linebacker Jackson Hamilton and Cartersville linebacker Amarai Orr on the other side, Calhoun will have to find some balance. New quarterback starter Christian Lewis is, Stephenson said, adept at making the right decision. He has a pair of nice targets in receivers Cole Speer and Quin Smith.

The defense, especially the line, is the strength of the team. Ends Carson Griffin and Brett Garland can get up the field in a hurry and will be helped on the second level by linebacker Jake Prather and a secondary spearheaded by safety Will Seamons.

It's a group that will be tested in region play by a Blessed Trinity rushing offense that amassed 4,362 yards a year ago and brings back super sophomore Justice Haynes (1,754 yards, 18 touchdowns) and quarterback J.C. French, who transferred from Wesleyan after passing for nearly 3,000 yards.

Cartersville's weapons include a trio of receivers - Kyler Johnson, Sam Phillips and Devonte Ross - who combined for more than 2,200 yards last year, and a quarterback, Stratton Tripp, who once started at Cambridge and has earned some preseason all-state recognition.

"We really feel good about our 11 guys on defense," Stephenson said. "They are going to be a pretty salty group. But we'll have a lot who will go both ways. Depth is our biggest challenge right now, and it's the biggest difference from going from 3A to 5A."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.