Miguel Patrick has been in Ellenwood for 12 seasons as defensive coordinator for Cedar Grove. But when Jimmy Smith took a job on the Georgia State coaching staff during the offseason, Patrick was promoted to lead the Saints into 2019. Cedar Grove has won two of the past three high school football state titles, but the question is whether the program can weather the coaching change and key graduation losses on offense and defense.
Most believe the program will.
The Saints are expected to be at -- or near -- the top when the Class AAA rankings debut Sunday. So where do the Saints stand from Patrick’s perspective?
“I think taking over the program and leading a team into a title defense as a new head coach is a great opportunity for our school, program and for myself to show that what coach Smith started here with myself and some other coaches is a (solid) program, and it was not lightning in a bottle,” he said. "We built it up and to where it can withstand some changes. You’ll have seniors graduate every year, but you expect the young guys to step up. I think it’s just my turn to step up as the leader of this program and to continue the tradition that we built here.”
And he has some big shoes to fill this season because, as we know, last year ended in story-book fashion for the Saints. It really did have it all.
First, there was a hard-fought 14-13 victory in the title game against a Peach County program wanting nothing more than a state title after losing to Calhoun in the 2017 title game. There was the game-winning touchdown pass to Jadon Haselwood, the nation’s No. 1 receiver, on the final play of his high school career after Cedar Grove's offense was held to next-to-nothing for 3.5 quarters. And you can’t forget, there was coach Jimmy Smith winning a state title in his final game at Cedar Grove before taking the job at Georgia State. And finally, there were tears, hugs and memories of a fallen teammate that passed away too soon.
But that was last year. Patrick spoke candidly Tuesday about the upcoming season, his team and Class AAA as a whole in a wide-ranging Q&A:
Q. After the changing of the guard, is it a rebuild or reload season?
A. I look at it more as a reload, not a rebuild. We have a lot of good young players who were just waiting their turn, and I think that they will rise to the occasion. We return a junior, Austin Smith, at the quarterback position. He has had a productive summer and spring, and we look for him to take that next step and show us that he can put it all together this season. We think he is going to be a really good player for us. We are just waiting on him to take that next step. He had a lot of experience, and we are hoping that pays of big-time this year. He is a really smart kid with a 4.0 GPA and he is in all AP and accelerated classes. One thing is that he will have a lot of control over what we do on the field. He will make checks and get us in the right place. So we think that his mental aspect, combined with his arm and feet, will hurt a lot of people. He can throw and run.
Q. Losing Haselwood can’t be easy. How will you weather it? Who is stepping up?
A. You can never really replace a guy like Jadon. His talent or his leadership skills are irreplaceable. We have a couple of young guys coming up. The main one is Janiran Bonner (he caught 16 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman). Physically, as a sophomore, he is ahead of where Jadon was when he was a sophomore. We will see if he has that in-game savvy like Jadon did. Physically, he is ready to play ball. He will step up big-time and will be our main go-to guy this year. It’s tough to lose a guy like Jadon, but this year we will have a more complete receiver corps. This year, we have about six guys who can make plays. We have another athlete – Rashad DuBinion – he’s only a sophomore as well. You’ll see him at running back; you’ll see him at receiver; you’ll see him at a defensive back position. He will carry a lot of the weight offensively at receiver as well.
Q. Speaking of tradition, what was the process there? When you walked onto campus 12-13 years ago, what did you see versus what you saw walking off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last year?
A. I saw a lot of talent when I got here. But I saw very little discipline. When coach Smith took over, that’s one thing that we talked about. Cedar Grove always had an enormous amount of talent, but we just had to get them to play together and play the right way. When he took over, he did some things to get it rolling in the right directions and it paid off, big-time.
Q. In my mind, AAA is one of the most talented classifications in the state, and it sometimes gets overlooked. Glance around the classification and tell me what you see.
A. Boy ... you know ... Peach County. Traditionally. Since I’ve been at Cedar Grove, you always hear about Peach County. You know they are always going to be well-coached; they’re always going to be very talented, disciplined, and they are always going to play hard. Same thing in our region (5-AAA). You talk about Westminster, Pace Academy and Lovett. It’s going to be a dogfight with them every game. Very disciplined teams, well-coached and talented. Same thing with Greater Atlanta Christian. You always know that GAC will be in the mix because who they have as a head coach (Tim Hardy), and they are always going to be well-coached and a solid team year-in and year-out. AAA is always overlooked. If you look at some of the schedules, I guarantee you, a lot of the bigger schools won’t put some AAA teams on the schedules because they are afraid to lose to them.
Q. A lot of people are saying that Cedar Grove and Peach County will be No. 1 or No. 2 out of the gate. As you see things, who’s No. 1 and who’s No. 2 in your mind?
A. Man. I tell you what. That (Peach) team that we played last year in the state championship, with all that talent coming back, I don’t see how they aren’t No. 1. You talk about the quarterback (Jaydon Gibson) and the play-makers around him. Especially that defense. That defense is fast and as vicious as it gets and with that linebacker they have -- Sergio Allen -- with those guys, I don’t see how they can’t be ranked No. 1. That will be a tough out for any team in the state, I don’t care what classification you’re in. With all that talent, and how the state championships have ended in the last two seasons for them, they are going to be as hungry as ever. They should be No. 1. There is no way they aren’t the No. 1 team in the state coming into this season. We are trying to replace some guys, so we might not have those household names just yet. We will be a talented team as well. But I don’t know if we are as talented as Peach County.
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