Every high school football season has unexpected developments.
Some teams surge, others sputter, and there are always a handful of players who emerge from the shadows to become stars. This year is no different in northwest Georgia.
Opportunity is, of course, the first factor needed to make the leap, and that can happen in a variety of ways. The following five players benefited from, among other things, a change of scenery, a new scheme, the graduation of stars ahead of them, and in every case, their own maturation.
Each has helped lead his team into playoff contention — as expected in the case of some teams, with others major surprises. Here's a closer look at the five:
Vyshonn Daniel, LaFayette QB
When Paul Ellis was hired in the offseason as coach of the Ramblers, he brought a hybrid wing-T offensive scheme with him. It requires a quarterback who can make good decisions and the occasional strong throw.
Ellis did not expect what he ended up with in this senior standout, who has helped LaFayette to a 4-2 record — including 1-1 in Region 6-AAAA entering tonight's game against Northwest Whitfield (3-2, 0-1) — after a 3-7 finish last season.
"The thing I like the most about Vyshonn is he has a quiet confidence and he's a very good leader," Ellis said. "He leads a lot more by example than word of mouth. He's really taken to this offense and he understands it, which is the big thing."
Mainly a defensive player a year ago and one of the school's elite basketball players, Daniel leads the Chattanooga area with 1,326 passing yards this season. He has completed 69 percent of his passes, with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Ellis wasn't sure how much of his offense he could put in right off the bat, but the more he puts on Daniel's shoulders, the more the quarterback delivers.
"He's had to get a crash course, and he's done a fantastic job in all aspects," Ellis said. "As an example, he understands how to throw people open by using the width of the field. We've put a lot on him, but he's really an intelligent kid."
Ty Fisher, NW Whitfield QB
Fisher was LaFayette's quarterback a year ago when his father, Chad, was in his fifth season as the Ramblers' head coach. When he was hired as Northwest Whitfield's offensive coordinator in the offseason, Ty went with him.
The change of scenery also meant a change in schemes, from the wing-T to the spread.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior — a left-handed pitcher, Ty recently committed to Tennessee Tech's baseball program — has thrived in the new system, throwing for 1,142 yards and 13 touchdowns with a completion rate of more than 65 percent.
Bruins coach Josh Robinson said the athlete has made the transition look easy.
"The biggest deal is, coming from running the wing-T last year, he threw it five to seven times a game, maybe," Robinson said. "He's done a great job, and his stats could be better. Last week alone, we dropped nine passes.
"He's been in pressure situations in baseball, so he's accustomed to that. He makes good decisions, and if you're completing over 65 percent of passes at this level, you are competing at a high level."
Jordan Blackwell, Ridgeland RB
Blackwell was a key member of the Panthers' defense a year ago, when Ridgeland held eight of 12 opponents to seven or fewer points. But with Markeith Montgomery and Jalyn Shelton graduating from that team, new coach Cortney Braswell needed an offensive playmaker.
Having known Blackwell his entire life — they're cousins — Braswell knew he could handle the role if he wanted to.
"He was a dynamic defensive player last year, and I knew he had a chance to be successful on offense," Braswell said of the 5-10, 180-pound junior. "I asked him, 'Do you want to be great? To become great you have to carry yourself in a certain way and practice in a certain way.'
"He's changed so much about his attitude. The athletic aspect has always been there, and I've not seen anybody run him down and the first guy doesn't bring him down. There's not a spot on the field where we couldn't put him and he not be the best player on the field."
Through five games, including against the strong defenses of Calhoun, Troup County and Sandy Creek, Blackwell has rushed for 557 yards and six touchdowns. He has helped Ridgeland (3-2) win its first two Region 6-AAAA games to share the top spot in the standings with Pickens.
Todd Thornburg, LFO LB
As area offenses have surged in recent seasons, defensive numbers have slipped at most programs. At Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, however, a steady trend upward on defense has put the Warriors squarely in the Region 6-AAA playoff picture.
Since an ugly loss to Class AAAA's Heritage to open the season, LFO (4-2, 3-1) has allowed an average of 15.6 points per game — despite losing seven starters from last year's defense.
Coach Bo Campbell said Thornburg, a junior inside linebacker, has been a huge reason for the improvement. Despite being undersized, Thornburg (5-11, 175) has been nearly unblockable this year, racking up 56 solo tackles and 28 assists to go with four fumble recoveries.
"Todd is a great linebacker who reads players extremely well, and he's very, very coachable," Campbell said. "He's not going to go out and test at 4.4 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) or lift a crazy amount of weight to impress college scouts, but he's got a different speed when he's playing the game. He's just a good football player.
"A lot of that goes back to his heart and desire and competitiveness as a person. He's a very good tackler in space, and for his size, he plays a lot bigger. I've never seen him take a play off, either."
Hagen Willingham, Trion RB
Bulldogs coach Justin Brown makes no bones about it. Willingham is one of the most versatile — and durable — players he has coached.
The 5-10, 160-pound senior led Trion in defensive takeaways a year ago despite serving in spot duty on that side of the ball. This year he has played virtually every snap, and in addition to his usual strong defensive play, he leads Trion in rushing with 770 yards — at an average of nearly 10 yards a carry — and in receiving with 210 yards. He has scored 11 touchdowns.
"We knew he was a good player, but it was the first year he was going be an every down player, which is a lot different than every other series," said Brown, who's in his seventh season leading the Bulldogs. "As far as his ability, it hasn't surprised me at all. He's always had good vision and speed. He's surprised me somewhat with his shiftiness."
The Bulldogs (4-2, 1-2 6A-A) have benefited from all of it.
Willingham's biggest highlight so far this season will be tough to top. He rushed for 288 yards and five touchdowns in a narrow win over rival Gordon Lee on Sept. 21. The holder on kicks, he turned a bad snap in the final seconds into the winning 10-yard touchdown run.
"He's just a great athlete who is in great shape, and he's already done some things that most never have in the long history of Trion football," Brown praised. "I'm extremely proud of him."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.