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Class AA blog: Checking in with Pepperell

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When football activities eventually resume, the Pepperell Dragons will prepare to compete in the revamped Region 7. Gone are Rockmart and Armuchee, while Fannin County joins from Class AAA. But it was Rockmart which won the last three 7-AA titles and before that run, it was the Dragons who won region in 2016.

Given the Dragons’ perennial success under Rick Hurst, who will enter his sixth season at Pepperell, they are one of the teams — along with Chattooga and possibly up-and-coming Model — expected to compete for the region title. Since Hurst took over in 2015, the Dragons have never endured a losing season, qualified for the playoffs all five years and advanced in three of them — they went to the quarterfinals in 2016 — in addition to the region title.

Though Hurst wouldn’t go as far as to expect another region championship, he believes qualifying for the playoffs is well within the Dragons’ reach.

“We still have a good chance,” Hurst said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. ...So much is up in the air right now and (with the indefinite suspension of all GHSA activities) gives everyone an opportunity (to emerge competitive). But with teams like ours I feel it gives us an advantage due to the fact that we haven’t lost any coaches and not many players. I think that gives us a head start.”

As noted earlier this spring, Region 7 leads AA in new coaching hires.

Key returners for the Dragons include quarterback Gage Moses, running back D.J. Rogers, who started last year as a freshman, and the entire offensive line led by three-year starters Clay Crawford and Dawson Duncan.

“Any time your entire offensive line returns you have a good chance of being successful,” Hurst said.

The biggest challenge for the offense will be replacing the receiving corps. Payton Rhoades, Josh Ross, Dalton Wright, and Hurst’s son, Ryan Hurst, were a big part of last season’s no-huddle spread offense, allowing the Dragons to utilize an effective five-receiver set. For 2020, expect the Dragons to lineup in more two-tight end sets and emphasize the backfield, where Moses can showcase his dual-threat abilities and compliment Rogers.

Marsyan Griffin, Chase Gresham and Tray Robinson are names to look for at receiver, while Will Helton and Trey Forcier will line up a tight end, a position that wasn’t used much last season.

On defense, the Dragons must replace Ross who, in addition to his receiving duties anchored the secondary, which earned him 7-AA defensive player of the year and the AJC’s all-state honors. They also lost Bryant Simpson, who anchored the line at nose guard.

With spring football canceled, seeing which defensive players will emerge to fill those shoes has been postponed.

“We have some candidates but when you can’t get out there and see them (practice) it makes it hard,” Hurst said.

The Dragons have been navigating the cancellation of spring practice with at-home workouts and Google Hangouts meetings, which include staff-to-staff and staff-to-player conferences. Given the unprecedented circumstances, the seniors are being counted on more than ever.

“I met with the seniors last week (on Hangouts),” Hurst said. “About half of them were there. They’re still in good spirits and a lot of their parents are still working, which is good. They’re disappointed (at the cancellations) but they’re staying positive in how we proceed. I made them responsible for contacting players to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to. I asked them to take charge of the team.

“The seniors set the tone last year and this year’s seniors learned a lot. I told them they’re in a unique situation having to navigate through all of this and that they have to be the ones to hold the team accountable.”

The at-home workouts assigned to the Dragons focus on endurance and agility rather than strength. It’s the staff’s philosophy that strength can be gained quickly once the Dragons can work out as a team again, but staying on top of the other elements of fitness will be the key in which teams are ready when GHSA activities resume.

When that day comes, Hurst expects the team to be ready.

“I’m going to act like nothing happened,” Hurst said. “We’ll hit the ground running as hard as we possibly can. The seniors have been here four years and they know what will be expected.”

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