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Chattooga football coach Charles Hammon is replacing nine starters on offense and seven on defense from the 2016 team that reached the Georgia Class AA state quarterfinals.

Region 7-AA Outlook

Team to beat: Rick Hurst’s second season as coach at Pepperell yielded a region title as well as the program’s first double-digits win total in eight years and deepest playoff run in that same span. The Dragons might be even harder to stop in his third season.

Watch out for: Model has been quietly consistent for several years now. Are the Blue Devils ready to really surprise by taking out the favored region title contenders?

Best game: Pepperell travels to Rockmart on Oct. 13 for what could be the de facto league title game.

Dream schedule: Armuchee has a reasonably friendly nonregion slate of LaFayette, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe and Temple, though there are no favors with a region opener against Rockmart.

Nightmare schedule: Chattooga opens at home against Alabama’s Fort Payne, which struggled last season but had several solid years before that. Then the Indians have back-to-back road games against Dawson County and Ridgeland, teams that won decisively against Chattooga last year and reached the playoffs. The upside for the Indians is they’ll have five games of experience by the time they face Rockmart, and they won’t play Pepperell until the regular-season finale.

Players to watch: Pepperell RB Tae Hammond (5-10, 215) is a Georgia High School Football Daily preseason all-state selection this year after rushing for 1,362 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior. Also on that list: Chattooga senior OT Dustin Pope (6-5, 300), who has at least three scholarship offers from FCS programs, and Rockmart junior DB Markus Smith (5-9, 175), who’s also a threat on offense. Keep an eye on the breakout potential of Dade County sophomore RB Malaki Webb (5-11, 167) and Gordon Central TE/DE Dawson Lackey (6-3, 215).

Predicted order of finish: Pepperell, Rockmart, Model, Chattooga, Dade County, Coosa, Gordon Central, Armuchee.

When Chattooga reached the quarterfinals of the GHSA Class AA football state playoffs last season, some considered the Indians' deep run an emphatic end to a dogged hex.

It's easy to see why. According to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, until last season Chattooga had no victories to show for nine playoff berths this century. So wins against Lamar County, 44-14, and Washington County, 38-7, amounted to a double cure for what long had ailed the Indians.

Just don't ask coach Charles Hammon to buy into the "mystique" that supposedly had plagued them. After 4-7 and 7-4 records his first two seasons at Chattooga, going 8-5 and winning beyond the regular season was a logical next step — an enjoyable one, too.

"It was a lot of fun. We just played," he said. "We would have liked to play another one. I really believe when the Hapeville Charter game was over, we played hard enough to win, we just missed a couple of breaks that would have got us on to the semis."

For the Indians to have more postseason success this year — and perhaps start to make a habit of hanging around past October — several players must master new or bigger roles. That 30-21 defeat just south of Atlanta late last November was the final Chattooga football game for twins Isaiah and Isaac Foster, both two-way stars, but the losses go far beyond those obvious two holes.

Only two true starters return on offense, where C.J. Martin has moved from a receiver's role to quarterback, and just five are back on defense. But Hammon isn't asking for mercy in Region 7-AA, where Pepperell and Rockmart are considered heavy favorites for the top spots but a tight battle is expected the rest of the way down the standings.

He's also pleased with how his players have responded to the responsibility placed on them, citing a good performance in a spring scrimmage against Lee (Huntsville, Ala.), but acknowledged their lack of experience means they're going to have to learn quickly. One of the biggest lessons won't be absorbed until they actually play a game and face some adversity.

"You've got to get over the hump," Hammon said. "You've got to keep playing when you're down and play hard when something bad happens to you, such as a loss, such as a turnover. I want to see how they react and play when something bad happens."

At Gordon Central, new Warriors coach Cory Nix is similarly curious. He's also more optimistic than might be expected at a program with two wins in its past 40 games.

The defensive coordinator at Carroll County's Temple last year, the 37-year-old former University of Alabama at Birmingham tight end also has been an assistant at Roswell, Woodstock and Sequoyah, his alma mater. Now he's a head coach for the first time, and he's eager to get the rebuilding going.

"There's so much potential that can be reached here," said Nix, who expects big things from quarterback Brent Silvar, versatile athlete Cameron Pierce and senior defensive lineman Dorian McConnell among others.

Nix already was somewhat familiar with his new league from his time in Class AA last season, and his thoughts were in line with those of other Region 7 coaches.

"Pepperell and Rockmart should be battling it out for one and two," he said. "After that I think three and four is wide open and it's anybody's."

At Dade County, as the Wolverines enter their 10th season under coach Bradley Warren, they'll try to make sure they're in that race after a step back last season, when they finished 3-7 and won just two region games. Consistency has been hard to come by since they went 6-4 and 10-2 in Warren's second and third seasons, with a 7-4 showing in 2013 followed by a 2-8 campaign and last year's disappointment on the heels of a 6-5 record in 2015.

Warren hopes a "great offseason" that showed some maturity compared to last year and the return of most of the starters on each side of the ball can offset depth concerns for a team that will count on several two-way playmakers, including quarterback/defensive end Greg Templeton.

While Pepperell deservedly is getting attention as the reigning region champion, the Dragons weren't 7-AA's only team in the state quarterfinals last year. The other representative wouldn't mind showing it belongs on a higher plane this season, too.

"I think Pepperell is still the team to beat, but Rockmart has a lot of kids back and is right there with them," Hammon said. "The past couple of years both those teams have had the edge on us. What we're reaching for is to get up there with them."

Contact Marty Kirkland at mkirkland@timesfreepress.com.

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