Several weeks ago, I was tasked with ranking, albeit a bit early, the Class AAA football programs that will take the field in 2019. After reviewing the assignment for Score Atlanta, I reached out, via text, to a handful of coaches across the classification to see their take.
The responses varied. But most had one thing in common -- Peach County was never ranked less than third, and in most of the coaches' responses, the Trojans were the team to beat.
It’s easy to see why.
Since Chad Campbell’s arrival in 2007, the Trojans have won seven region titles, including the past three seasons. Peach has one state title under Campbell’s control, in 2009. Under Campbell, Peach has been to the finals four times, including the past two seasons. It advanced to the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once. This pedigree is hard to overlook, and AAA’s coaches know it.
But as usual, Coach Campbell ranked his team at No. 2 behind an unnamed AAA program. He’s not one to get too high or too low on his boys. Before the beginning of last year’s runner-up season, Campbell said his team had no chance.
So there’s that.
But the Trojans will return experience, while searching for depth, in an ever-changing rotation of talent through a spring practice that could be a bit different than previous years.
“We have a lot of the guys out this spring, surgeries and all," Campbell said. "All of our linebackers are out. Quarterback is out. He tore his ACL during the playoffs. He played on it during the playoffs but had surgery in January.”
But there are serious players all over the field and a rising crop of talent to take the Trojans into 2019.
“The one who’ll get the reps this spring is an eighth-grade quarterback,” Campbell said. “(Christian Martin) is going to be really good, but he is an eighth-grader. He and another kid, Billy Jack Gregory, will be getting all the reps this spring.”
But Campbell sees the glass half-full.
“J.G., Jaydon Gibson, had surgery at the end of January,” Campbell said. “But if you looked at him now, you’d never know he had surgery. He is supposed to go back to the doctor Thursday and will likely start jogging next week. Sergio (Allen) is out this spring; the other two linebackers who had season-ending injuries in 2018 are out. They’ll go through drills, but won’t do contact. So it will be a little different this spring. It’s OK, we know those guys can play, so we aren’t worried about those guys. This will help us find depth. It will be a fun spring.”
But it’s early April, and we’re speculating on a football season that’s five months away. So let’s speculate a bit more with Campbell, who spoke by phone on Tuesday for wide-ranging Q&A on his team, the state of the classification, reclassification and other things:
Q. Before we look forward, let’s look back at the play at the end of the title game against Cedar Grove, when Jadon Haselwood caught the game-winning touchdown. What happened on your end?
A. It was a great throw and a great catch. We were playing man underneath and two deep. We’d played that most of the night on critical downs and we had been playing it pretty good in the playoffs. But the safeties got too deep. It’s just that we didn’t execute like we needed to. That’s the bottom line. It had to be a perfect throw and a perfect catch, and it was. You can look back and ask 'should I have done something different?' I guess you can always say 'I could have done something different' if a play doesn’t happen your way. But we had been running that a bunch and before the half we picked it off. We told them in the huddle, 'if you line up in the slot be looking. We had worked that route a few times in the 10 days before, and it wasn’t nothing but a double move and we kind of bit on one move. The safeties were too deep. We just didn’t execute it. Any type of call that you don’t execute, things can go wrong. Sit there and say, 'Could we have been one-high with a safety?' I mean, we can debate all we want to, but if you don’t execute what was called, it doesn’t really matter. The guy made a perfect throw and a perfect catch. Even though we bit on the first move, the double move, we were still right there. If it hadn’t been a ball thrown in that right spot, we could’ve … you know… I don’t know. When I look at it, I look at first-and-goal from the 6 because we had 12 men in the formation because somebody didn’t come off the field when the personnel was called because they didn’t pay attention. The kickoff coverage was terrible. If you kick it out of bounds, they aren’t going to take it on the 35-yard-line, they’ll want you to kick it again. Our kicker had been kicking it in the end zone all year, so I told him to kick it deep. I wanted him to kick it into their boundaries because that’s where they returned it and we were going to condense the field. We covered pretty good all year when we did that, and he line drives it right to him. It was just a few plays that you wished you had over. That guy made the plays that they had to. I don’t know what else to do. I guess you second-guess yourself, but that’s part of this profession. Don’t sleep for a week after. What could you have done different? I’m sure a lot of people do that. Bottom line, you have to execute what’s called. Bottom line.
Q. Walk me around the classification. What do you see?
A. I think Westminster is going to be good with the quarterback they have coming back. They lose some players, but I think they’ll be OK. I think Calhoun, you know they lost the coach, but they lost a bunch of starters, so I think they’ll be down from what they’ve normally been being. Cedar Grove, losing the coach and losing some good players, you don’t know what to expect. I don’t really know that area up there. I think who’s going to be pretty good is Jenkins. I haven’t seen them in a top-10, but Jenkins played Calhoun very well, and Jenkins has a ton coming back and Jenkins has people. I think Jenkins is going to win that region. Now, Benedictine could be a lot better than I am anticipating, but Jenkins has a lot back and they are good. Westside-Macon was good on defense last year. They didn’t do much against us offensively, but they’ll be OK. Their quarterback is a good player, and defensively they were pretty good last year. They have most of their offense coming back, but defensively they’ll lose some. I think GAC, they’ll have to be better than what they were, probably. Pierce County is coming along but I don’t know, I’ve heard Jason Strickland might go to Ware. They should win that region down there if Strickland stays, or even not. I don’t think Liberty County has much returning from what they had last year. I see Pierce winning that region with Appling being a little bit better. That region is good with Cedar Grove, Pace, Lovett and Westminster. Calhoun will probably still win their region. Region 7, GAC and Dawson County, I think Dawson lost some good players. In Region 8, Jefferson and Monroe Area, I think Monroe lost a lot of good players. Hart County with Rance (Gillespie) will be a lot better this year. They were young last year.
Q. Can you pencil in a Final Four right now?
A. Well, a lot of that depends on the brackets. Those quarterfinal matchups, sometimes you get a state-championship caliber matchup in the quarterfinals. For me to make a prediction, I’d just have to see a bracket. A lot goes into it, you know. The first thing you have to do is win that region and get a No. 1 seed. That’s important. You look at us, in 2014 Appling beat us in the first round because we turned the ball over eight times. In 2015, we lost the region title 3-2 to Jackson in what became the region championship game, and, even though we were OK that year, we probably could’ve made the semifinals that year, just by being the No. 1 seed, but we lost to Calhoun in overtime in the second round as the No. 2 seed. I’d have to look at a bracket. I know Cedar Grove has guys back and they have talented people, but hell, we could be in a quarterfinal matchup with them. I just don’t know. They’re going to be young, and they probably 18 starters. They lost a bunch. Cedar Grove probably has half coming back and they’ll still be good. But, when you lose that play-maker they had ... they didn’t do anything against us offensively. I sat and watched GAC last year after losing their defensive coordinator, and they looked so much different on defense. They have some guys coming back, and I think they’ll be better than they were last year. They lost a lot, including their quarterback Josh Rose. But I don’t know what their roster looks like, as far as how many starters they lost. I think Pierce is going to be good. If Strickland stays, I think they’ll win that region and make some noise.
Q. Reclassification. Talk to me about it.
A. We may go to AA. We are right there on the brink. We would be at the bottom of AAA. The privates that are in AA will have to move up to AAA. If you take five privates, you’ll have to take five others to equal it out. That’s what we don’t ever know right now. If we had a better understanding on how many we are going to get and how many we aren’t going to get, then I could probably say, 'We are going to AA,' but right now we are at the bottom of AAA. We are right there; it could go either way.
Q. Rebuild or reload?
A. Well, I think we have a good chance. We have a lot coming back. We lost two starters on our offensive line and two wideouts, but I feel good about our wideouts. I feel like we have an upcoming sophomore who will be one of the top recruits in the state in the next few years. Defensively, if we can find a few defensive linemen, that’s what will be interesting. We lost three good ones, and we put tons of pressure on the quarterback in the playoffs. They were good players who will each play college ball. I think if we don’t have any serious injuries, we will have a chance to make a run. You don’t never know. It’s all about how this chemistry comes along with this team. But this is the year to do it. We have a bunch of seniors returning. It’ll be the biggest senior class we’ve had. We have 30 of them. So if we are going to do it, we need to do it this year.
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