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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/2/16. Dalton quarter back JP Tighe (13) hands the ball off to Kyric McGowan (11) while paying Valdosta during the first half of the GHSA Class 6A semifinal playoff game at Harmon Fiend on Friday, December 2, 2016.
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Dalton quarterback J.P. Tighe passes under pressure from Valdosta's James Bushware during a GHSA Class AAAAAA semifinal last December. Tighe's return helps offset some of the major losses the Catamounts took via graduation.

Few big-school football regions in Georgia were hit as hard by graduation this past spring as 6-AAAAAA — with one notable exception.

Dalton — which finished 13-1 overall last season and won the region with a 7-0 record — and contenders Allatoona (6-6, 5-2), Sequoyah (4-7, 4-3) and Sprayberry (6-4, 4-2) must replace most of their key players. But Harrison (10-2, 6-1) returns the player ranked No. 1 in the country by some recruiting services.

Hoyas quarterback Justin Fields is a five-star prospect given a rare 100 rating by 247Sports.com. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior is the nation's top dual-threat quarterback after passing for 2,770 yards, rushing for 1,176 and totaling 38 touchdowns a year ago. His presence, along with the graduation hits to others, has Harrison a consensus pick to take over the region this season.

"Everything starts with Harrison and Fields," Dalton coach Matt Land said. "If you have the number-one player in the country who touches it on every play, how can you not be the top dog in the region?

"I think this year you have a clear front-runner in Harrison and then another tier with us and Allatoona, Sequoyah and Creekview. We all have good athletes, so it's who can do it when it counts the most."

Harrison also returns leading receiver Steven Peterson, who had 1,362 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, but lost its top two linemen and top running back.

Land's Catamounts reached the state semifinals a year ago behind an enormous senior class that included several college prospects. Gone are leading rusher Ahmaad Tanner, leading receiver Zeke Cobb, three-fifths of the offensive line, the top four leading tacklers and massive defensive tackles Max Mainor and John Wesley Whiteside.

Senior quarterback J.P. Tighe, who injured his ankle in the semifinal loss to Valdosta, returned to the team after earlier deciding to focus on his baseball career. His strong arm will be counted on as the line, anchored by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga commitment Dylan Cole, grows up.

Also back is versatile athlete Nassir Love-Porter, who will play a variety of positions on offense and lead the secondary with senior free safety Harrison Hughes. A few transfers, including 6-foot-7 tight end Hunter Brummel, will step right in.

"We had a great summer, one that was completely different from a year ago, and we settled all our positional needs," Land said. "The early part of the season will be a learning experience, and hopefully we'll be ready when region play starts."

The Cats won't play Harrison until Oct. 20, a game that will be televised nationally by ESPN. By that time the region's slew of new starters will have determined the race for the postseason.

Allatoona lost its quarterback, 1,200-yard rusher Charles Anderson, its top two receivers and three of its four leading tacklers. The offense will lean on running back Adrian Boyd, while senior linemen Royce Francis (8.5 sacks) leads the defense.

Sequoyah, an offensively challenged team a year ago, returns quarterback Collier Pecht and receiver Cole Jacobs, but the Chiefs lost their leading rusher and top three tacklers. Sprayberry lost even more, including its quarterback, top receiver and two leading rushers. One of those was Oklahoma recruit Trey Sermon.

Creekview (4-6, 2-5) is the contender with the most production returning, led by quarterback Chandler Gantt, 900-yard rusher Cade Radam and its two leading tacklers, Zach Johnson and Chance Schwartz.

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.

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