Before we get to previews of this weekend’s second round match ups, we hear from coaches on opposite ends of the championship spectrum.
Macon County head coach Dexter Copeland has been at the head of the team that has been the odds on favorite to win the Class A public championship since it was announced last spring that the Bulldogs were dropping down a classification after going 10-3 and advancing to the AA quarterfinals, where they lost by a touchdown to eventual state champion Pace Academy.
Turner County head coach Ben Simmons took over a program two years ago that was a combined 22-31 prior to his arrival. After finishing 8-3 last season and advancing to the state playoffs for the first time since 2013, last week the Rebels won their first post season game since 2008.
The teams will meet Friday night in Montezuma, as No. 1 Macon County hosts No. 17 Turner County.
Dexter Copeland, Macon County
You have coached in larger classifications. What is the biggest difference you’ve seen between Class A and the larger classes?
“To be honest with you, there’s not a big difference at all. You just have more players in the larger classes. Football is football. On any level, if you have good players and you can coach a little bit, you will win some games. In Class A you have more guys going both ways. A lot of coaches may get mad at me for saying this, but it’s the truth: Single A coaches have to be smarter and work harder. You have to manage your roster because of your numbers. Also, at a larger school the head coach is more like the CEO. Here in Class A, you have to actually coach a position. I coach an offensive position and a defensive position, and I love it because you’re around your kids more. And there is nothing like the atmosphere of a football Friday night in a small Class A town like Montezuma. That is real Georgia high school football. I’m really enjoying myself.”
Your team has been the prohibited favorite to win the state title since the beginning of the season. Do you feel any pressure?
“I told my wife [Thursday] night that this is the most antsy I’ve been all year, now that the playoffs are starting. I have to say that I am feeling a little bit of pressure, but it’s more a feeling or excitement than pressure. We know that the talk out there for us is win a state championship or bust.”
And how about your players? How have they handled the expectation of winning a state championship?
“At the beginning of the season, we sat down with the team and I had some old film from my Class A days at Twiggs County (2001-2009). I showed them players like Nick Marshall (UGA, New York Jets) at Wilcox County, Charles Johnson (UGA, Carolina Panthers) at Hawkinsville, Darquez Dennard (Michigan State, Cincinnati Bengals) at Twiggs County. That showed them that there are some great players in Class A and that they better not sleep on Class A because there are some great teams with great traditions here. You’re talking about Clinch County, Lincoln County, (ECI) Emanuel County Institute, Commerce, Darlington, and so many others. The top level of Class A teams can compete with and beat a lot of the top teams in Class AA and AAA.”
How have those tough losses to Class AA Fitzgerald (70-42) and Class AAAAAA Northside-Warner Robins (45-6). How has that helped your team?
“We wanted to have a tough non-region schedule. We wanted our gets to get in there and get pushed around by Fitzgerald and Northside so that they will be prepared for tough times. We played a great Manchester team [for the Region 4 championship]. In the first quarter we were down 7-0 and they had the ball on our eight yard line. If we go down 14-0 there, it could have been a different game, but we got a [defensive] stop and were able to recover.” (The Bulldogs won 55-13)
Who has stepped up for you this season?
“Curt McDonald is our heart and soul. We call him the playmaker, like Michael Irwin. He’s all over the field. He’s played free safety, linebacker, corner and when our best receiver, Trey Brown, went down, Curt had 10 touchdowns in three weeks. He’s 5-9, 175, but he plays like he’s 6-3, 250. He’s our [Michigan DB/LB/ATH] Jabril Peppers. He’s tough, talented and a smart football player. He comes from a family of football players and he probably knows more football than a lot of coaches. Trey Brown (6-5, 190) is a player every school in the southeast wants. Christian Meadows (6-5, 330) is our left tackle who is committed to Florida State. [RB/DB] Jared Daniels is 6-0, 190 and a tremendous athlete. He had 1,600 yards last year and 1,000 yards this year. He is the exact same player as Darqueze Dennard. And then there is the ‘Red Rifle’ [QB K’hari Lane]. He can make every throw as well as any kid in the country. He’s a tremendous player and a tremendous young man. He didn’t go on a recruiting trip last week because he had promised to hold the chains at our Kiwanis youth bowl championships. That’s the type of young man he is.”
Ben Simmons, Turner County
How is this year’s team different from last season?
“Those seniors last season laid a great foundation for this program. I can’t thank them enough. They showed our seniors this season what it means to compete and what it takes to be compete for region championships and state championships. Last year we lost to Clinch County and Irwin County, and they went on to play for the state championship. This year we lost to Clinch, but we got a bit win against Irwin. I think for our seniors this year who played last year as juniors, the experience they gained last year made a big difference.”
Who are some of the players who have stepped up this season?
“I’m so pleased with the play of our offensive line. We challenged those guys to get better up front and they have really stepped up. Malik High is the leader. He plays on the offensive and defensive line for us. If he were 6-2 he would have offers from every school in the country, but he’s 5-10, 290. He’s just a tough, smart, talented, athletic football player. Then we have Brady Wynn, Malik Holmes and Devascea Blanks – all seniors. Dontae Johnson and Tyrese Vail are juniors. I couldn’t be more proud of all of those guys. [WR/DB] Ontario Wilson and [WR/DB] Tamorrion Terry are seniors who have been big time leaders and players for us all year, and [WR] Jarvis Hall and C.J. Burgess, our safety we call the Hitman, have been great. And Tyler Moore, our junior quarterback has been really solid for us all season, too.”
What is the attitude of the team preparing to play Macon County, the team everyone thinks should win the state title?
“When our kids step on the field, they believe they can compete with anyone. We had a challenging, touch schedule. We scrimmaged bigger schools like [Class AAA] Cook and [Class AAAAAAA] Tift County. They pushed us around a little bit, but that’s OK. We competed. We didn’t play well against Clinch [66-20]. We shot ourselves in the foot with five turnovers, but I give credit to coach [Jim] Dickerson. They did a great job. But I think that loss got our seniors refocused and has helped us finish strong. We just have to go out Friday and play our game.”
Round 2 Previews ( Courtesy of Georgia High School Football Daily )
*Pinecrest Academy (8-3) at No. 7 Wesleyan (8-2): Pinecrest Academy's 14-7 victory over Brookstone last week was its second playoff win since moving from the GISA in 2010. QB Ryan McCarthy rushed for 72 yards, passed for 41 yards and scored both touchdowns, including the game-winner with about 30 seconds left to cap an eight-minute drive. Wesleyan, which had a first-round bye, is 1-4 in playoff games since reaching the semifinals in 2010, although the past four seasons were spent in AA. Wolves junior QB Banks Ramsey has passed for 2,317 yards and 28 TDs. Junior George Bielan (98 carries, 559 yards, seven TDs) is the leading rusher.
*First Presbyterian (7-4) at No. 1 Eagle's Landing Christian (10-0):First Presbyterian gets about 60 percent of its offense from the passing game, but the Vikings rushed for a season-high 278 yards in a 35-10 first-round victory over Aquinas. C.J. Harris ran for 171 yards and leads the team with 783. QB Dalton Cox is 166-of-276 passing for 2,120 yards and 20 TDs. ELCA, the 2015 state champion and No. 1 seed this year, has won 18 consecutive games by an average margin of 37.4 points. Trevor Gear has rushed for 965 yards and 14 TDs. Brayden Rush has passed for 771 yards and rushed for 326.
*No. 9 Stratford Academy (8-3) at No. 5 Tattnall Square (10-0): Tattnall Square beat Stratford Academy 7-3 on Oct. 28 in a game the clinched the subregion title in 7-A Division A, and the Trojans went on win the region championship. Ahmad Barron, Tattnall Square's leading rusher, scored the game's only touchdown on a 40-yard run with 3:12 remaining. Stratford's Kasey Sanders, who had 118 yards and two touchdowns rushing in a 35-7 victory over Holy Innocents' last week, ran for 108 yards in the first meeting between the Macon rivals. Tattnall Square leads the series 27-22 going back to their days in the GISA.
*Savannah Christian (7-3) at No. 4 Calvary Day (9-0): This is a rematch of their Nov. 4 game, won by Calvary 28-14 in the regular-season finale. Savannah Christian leads the series 22-14, but Calvary Day has won three of the past four meetings. Savannah Christian rushed for 314 yards, including 124 by A.J. Davis, in a 41-7 victory over Hebron Christian last week. QB Jordan Grant was 4-of-4 passing for 112 yards and two TDs. Calvary Day gets about 78 percent of its offense from the running game, but freshman QB Thomas Carver passed for a career-high 161 yards against Savannah Christian two weeks ago.
*No. 10 Darlington (8-3) at No. 6 Landmark Christian (9-1):Darlington's offense averages 308 yards per game but was held to 419 total in its past two games, including a 20-6 first-round victory over Walker. Tijai Whatley (150-971-12) and Elijah McKoy (112-812-13) lead a running game that averages 221 yards. Landmark Christian was 9-0 until losing to Eagle's Landing Christian 49-0 in the regular-season finale. The War Eagles are led by RB/DB Lofton Tidwell, who has rushed for 1,090 yards this season and more than 4,000 yards in his career, and QB/DB Joey Blount, a Virginia commitment.
*Mount Pisgah Christian (6-4) at No. 2 Prince Avenue Christian (10-0): Mount Pisgah has won at least one playoff game three times in four seasons. Last week, QB Jacob Cendoya passed for 370 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 75 yards in a 35-26 victory over Athens Christian. Kai Williams had six catches for 181 yards and scored four TDs. Prince Avenue has won 26 consecutive regular-season games and is seeking its sixth straight quarterfinal appearance. The Wolverines are as balanced as any team in the state (159.9 rushing, 156.5 passing). Greg Roland has passed for 1,550 yards, and Thomas Huff has rushed for 706.
*Athens Academy (9-2) at No. 8 Mount Paran Christian (9-1): Athens Academy beat Savannah Country Day 37-21 last week for its first playoff victory since 2012. The Spartans trailed 21-17 but scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull away. Payton Bowles (861 yards rushing for the season) scored on a 71-yard reception and runs of 2 and 10 yards. Mount Paran, a state champion in 2014 and quarterfinalist last year, has won eight consecutive games since a 14-7 loss to Fellowship Christian. Jack Allen has rushed for 845 yards, including 83 and a touchdown in a 24-22 victory over Darlington in the regular-season finale. Athens Academy leads the series 3-0, but the teams haven't met since 2010.
*George Walton Academy (8-3) at No. 3 Fellowship Christian (10-0):George Walton reached the semifinals in 2012 but did not return to the playoffs until this season. Running backs Ty Buice and James Wesley-Martin have been dealing with injuries but returned for the Bulldogs' 38-14 win over Mount Vernon last week. Buice scored two TDs, and Wesley-Martin rushed for 66 yards. Fellowship Christian is in the playoffs for the first time since its 2007 team went 11-2. The Paladins average 275 yards rushing and are led by Andrew Johnson (137-943-12) and Andrew Minkert (117-746-9). QB Jack Hardin has passed for 1,119 yards, rushed for 387 and had a hand in 24 touchdowns.
*No. 10 Twiggs County (8-3) at No. 4 Manchester (9-1): Twiggs County has two 1,000-yard rushers, and both went over 100 yards last week in the 46-7 victory over Marion County. RB Ja'mon Height had 216, and Javoris Smith added 119. The Cobras hadn't had a playoff victory or winning season since 2009. Manchester is one victory from its first 10-win season since 1998. RB Tre Gamble is just under 1,000 yards rushing in a Wing-T offense that averages about 240 yards rushing. QB Garrett Brown, a major college prospect as a 6-foot-7 pitcher, attempts only about five passes per game.
*Turner County (8-3) at No. 2 Macon County (8-2): Turner County got its first playoff victory last week, a 41-6 win over Terrell County, since 2008. QB Tyler Moore has thrown 27 TD passes, at least two in every game he has played. He's 94-of-165 passing for 1,818 yards. Tamorrion Terry, a preseason all-state pick, has 1,055 yards receiving at 28.5 yards per catch. Terry's 18 touchdowns in 37 receptions is matched only by Macon County's Trey Brown, who has 18 touchdowns in 35 receptions. Macon County QB K'hari Lane has thrown for 2,857 yards and 45 touchdowns, nine short of the state record, without an interception.
*Irwin County (7-4) at No. 5 Mount Zion (9-1): Irwin County RB Jeremiah Ashley has rushed for 1,218 yards and scored 25 touchdowns, but ninth-graders stole the show in the 42-0 first-round victory over Dooly County. Freshman FB D.J. Lundy rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, and freshmen Jamorri Colson and Chad Miller intercepted passes. Mount Zion RB Jace Jordan has rushed for 1,142 yards and 14 touchdowns on 111 attempts (10.3 ypc). Mount Zion is one victory from its first 10-win season since starting football in 1956. Coach Keith Holloway's record is 35-19 in five seasons. The program was 7-43 in the previous five campaigns.
*Miller County (9-2) at No. 3 Emanuel County Institute (9-0): Miller County has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in sophomore Chris Stovall (1,304) and senior J.J. George (1,075). George scored the winning touchdown and conversion in a 29-28 win over Bowdon last week. That was Miller County's first playoff victory since 2010. ECI QB Rhett Gay is 89-of-123 passing (72.4 percent) for 1,822 yards and 26 touchdowns with just one interception. ECI rushes for 236.2 yards per game without a single feature back.
*No. 7 Taylor County (10-1) at No. 8 Commerce (8-2): Taylor County RB Lyn-J Dixon has rushed for 1,808 yards and scored 36 touchdowns, but the Vikings are a handful because of balance. QB Gunnar Watson was 21-of-28 passing for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 victory over Trion in the first round, Taylor County's first playoff win since 2001. Commerce's marquee player is FB/SS Cole Chancey, a four-year starter who has rushed for 1,205 yards and made 52 tackles. OL Cade Overstreet and OL Carson Hall, both 6-3, 245 pounds, control the line of scrimmage for one of the state's top rushing teams. Commerce has reached the semifinals the past two seasons.
*Mitchell County (9-2) at No. 1 Clinch County (9-1): Malik Barnes rushed for 145 yards in Mitchell County's 46-14 victory over Randolph-Clay last week. QB Kentravious Williams has passed for 1,364 yards and rushed for 686 on the season. DB/WR/RET James Thomas, one of three freshmen among the top 10 tacklers on defense, has 982 all-purpose yards. Clinch County's main weapon is QB Charles McClelland, who has rushed for 1,159 yards and 15 touchdowns. Shannon Young, a 1,500-yard rusher during Clinch's 2015 championship season, remains out with a foot injury. Trezman Marshall (485 passing, 391 rushing) also takes turns at quarterback. Clinch has completed only 28 of 68 passes, but 17 have gone for touchdowns.
*Lincoln County (7-3-1) at No. 6 McIntosh County Academy (7-2): Javon Reid is Lincoln County's leading passer (1,134 yards) and rusher (975 yards). Quay Hartfield has rushed for at least 100 yards each of the past three games, including a 163-yard effort with three touchdowns in a 24-3 victory over Washington-Wilkes in the first round. The Red Devils had lost four straight playoff games. They lost two in a row only one other time (1980-81). McIntosh County Academy averages 195.0 yards passing and 109.9 rushing. MCA allows just 10.1 points per game, the best among Class A public-school teams. LB Akhari Roberts and LB Dallas Anthony have 15 sacks between them.
*No. 9 Greene County (8-3) at Pelham (9-1): Greene County RB Devin Wynn scored five touchdowns, one on a punt return, and rushed for 175 yards in a 49-7 victory over Wheeler County last week, the Tigers' first playoff win since 2006. Wynn leads Class A in rushing with 1,938 yards. Pelham won its first region title (1-A) this season since 2001. Pelham freshman QB Kendrick Patterson is 126-of-242 passing for 1,841 yards and 23 touchdowns. Pelham is one win from its first quarterfinal since 1982.