All eyes on Region 5

Perhaps it is understandable why newly reclassified Region 5-AAA has gotten most of the preseason attention heading into the 2016 high school football season.

The region put 10 players on the preseason Class AAA all-state team. Cedar Grove has four of the state’s top college prospects. And state championships are in the region's pedigree. Westminster won last season in Class AAA. Pace Academy won in Class AA. Cedar Grove made the semifinals.

When the AJC released its top-10 rankings Sunday , four of the region's eight teams were ranked -- Westminster at No. 1, Pace at No. 3, Cedar Grove at No. 5 and Lovett at No. 10.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to play these great teams," said Pace coach Chris Slade, who has three players on the preseason all-state team -- Andrew Thomas (also a Super 11 selection), Trey Blount and Jamaree Salyer. "You have to play hard teams in this region. ... At the end of the day, Westminster is the team to beat. They epitomize what a good program is."

In 2015, Westminster overcame a 6-4 start before making their championship run. They lost to Calhoun in the semifinals in 2014. This year's team has three players on the Class AAA preseason all-state team -- Zay Malcome, Ian Ude and Cortez Alston.

But reclassification arguably has made Class AAA stronger throughout the state. The class features three AJC Super 11 selections -- Thomas of Pace, Richard LeCounte of Liberty County and Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian – and coaches aren’t ready to anoint 5-AAA teams just yet.

There will be several serious challengers:

-- Calhoun: Coach Hal Lamb, whose team is ranked No. 2 in the state, will tell you that Region 5 has four great teams, but he prefers to spend his time preparing his own team, which for years has been one of the best programs in the state. The Yellow Jackets won state championships in 2014 (AAA) and 2011 (AA) and every region championship since 2001.

"We are going to be a bit inexperienced, but we will grow up fast," Lamb said.

Calhoun placed three players on the preseason all-state team -- Baylon Spencer, William Long and Olico Dennis.

-- Greater Atlanta Christian: The Spartans, ranked No. 4, moved from Class AA into 7-AAA after losing to Pace Academy in the semifinals last season. They have made the playoffs every year since 2012.

Mills, a Stanford commitment, is rated the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the state. He was 169-of-282 passing for 2,821 yards and 25 touchdowns as a junior. Three others players have also committed to top programs -- Devin Cochran (Vanderbilt), Alex Rowe (Army), and Ford Higgins (Navy).

Credit: Adam Krohn

Credit: Adam Krohn

"Mills is a special player." said GAC coach Tim Hardy. "He's very consistent in his play and does a great job of elevating the level of play of his teammates. I'm really excited about the work that he has put in and the way he is set up to lead our team."

-- Peach County: Coach Chad Campbell said he is aware of the strength of Region 5, but his concerns are with his team.

“Hopefully (Region 5) will beat each other up, but we know they’ll be battle-tested for the playoffs” said Campbell. “They’re the toughest region, without a doubt, with two state champions, but we’re focused on us.”

The Trojans, ranked No. 6, are led by Kearis Jackson at wide receiver and linebacker Kevin Nixon and defensive back Kyle Nixon (preseason all-state). Peach played well in last Friday’s scrimmage against Northside-Warner Robins, the fourth-ranked team in Class AAAAAA. Northside won the scrimmage 21-20.

Peach has a rich playoff history, winning state titles in 2005, 2006 and 2009.

-- Worth County: The Rams dropped from Class AAAA after losing last season to Buford 42-0 in the second round of the playoffs. But Coach Jason Tone told Tim Morse of the Albany Herald that his team has not let the blowout affect them. “The mindset has changed,” he told the Herald. “They expect to win and compete. They are disappointed when we don’t win.”

Worth, ranked No. 7, will have to rebuild its defense, which lost nine starters. Its offensive line has four returning starters. The program has made the playoffs for two consecutive years.