Class AAAAA football blog: Experienced Clarke Central club loaded for a long run

In its first four seasons under coach David Perno, the Clarke Central football program has gradually climbed back into the championship conversation. The Gladiators have made the playoffs each season and reached the quarterfinals the last two years.

Now, with numbers and enthusiasm surging, the Athens school appears ready to make a run toward its first title since 1985.

Clarke Central will begin the summer with 32 seniors on its roster. That’s the sort of groundswell to expect when you beat mighty Buford and bring home the school’s first region championship since 2011.

It also marks the arrival of one of the most talented groups of players the school has produced. This group of seniors has been talked about for years.

“When I took this job, I kept hearing about this group of eighth graders,” Perno said. “They won the Middle School championship and we kept them together as ninth graders and they went undefeated, with one tie. This class is loaded with quality and quantity.”

At the top of the class is Jairus “Nono” Mack, who was the Region 8 Player of the Year in 2019. He caught 69 passes for 1,241 yards – a 17.9-yard average – and 19 touchdowns. Perno compared Mack to Darryl Moore, who helped lead the 1979 team to a state championship and is revered as one of the school’s greatest players.

“He’s the closest thing I’ve seen to Bodine (Moore),” Perno said. “He’s got great body control, I’ve never seen him get caught from behind and his ball skills are as good as anybody I’ve seen.”

Mack will be helped at receiver by the return of Justin Hodges, who had 18 catches last season, and A.J. Jewell, who had 16 catches.  Speedy Jalen Gary (32 catches) graduated.

Much will depend on who wins the quarterback job. Isaac Ward graduated and his leadership – and his 2,548 yards and 33 touchdowns – will be missed. Will Robinson, who played six games last year and threw a couple of touchdown passes, is the favorite but he’ll have competition for the job.

The Gladiators return all-region offensive lineman Montavious Cunningham, but graduated all-state running back O’Brien Barnett (1,532 yards, 17 touchdowns).

The defense is expected to bounce back after last year, when they began with only two experienced players. All-region pick Kolbe Cooper returns on the line and the Gladiators are planning to cross train some linemen to add depth on both sides.

Clarke Central returns two experienced inside linebackers in Kyle Cowan and Jaylon Davenport and two quality outside linebackers in Adrian Johnson and Amareion Stembridge, who moved there from running back last year.

The secondary will be a strength. Clarke has six seniors in the back end, led by all-region selection Douglas Clark.

“I expect it to be the best second we’ve ever had,” Perno said.

Clarke Central remains in Region 8 with holdovers Johnson Gainesville, Loganville and Walnut Grove. New teams coming into the league are Apalachee, Eastside, Greenbrier and Jackson County. The Gladiators have three tough non-region games – rival Cedar Shoals in the opener, Buford (which won Class AAAAA last year before moving up in classification) and next-door neighbor Oconee County, which finished second in Class AAAA a year ago. Perno embraced the opportunity to play Buford again. It began with a handshake agreement at midfield last year when Clarke knocked off the Wolves in the final game.