Class AA blog: 5 teams to watch

Welcome to the first Class AA blog of the 2019 football season! Last AA season brought us a number of story lines (found in this season recap post) headlined by the Heard County Braves capturing the first state championship for a program that dates back to 1972. The Braves overcame a 1-2 start to the season and ripped off 12 consecutive wins, including a 27-6 victory in the title game over Rockmart, which beat them 33-0 in their third game of the season.

It’s unknown (and unlikely, given personnel turnover) if the Braves’ No. 1 ranking will carry over into 2019, as the AJC’s preseason rankings won’t be released until Sunday. There will be a handful of other teams, which will be discussed below, who will be vying for the privilege of dethroning Heard County. And, until a program changes this fact, it’s worth noting every year that AA hasn’t crowned a back-to-back champion since Buford, which won four in a row from 2007-10.

Here’s a look at five teams to keep an eye on this season:

Heard County

2018 results: 13-2; Region 5 champions; beat Rockmart 27-6 in the AA championship.

2019 outlook: The Braves lose four starters on both offense and defense, including their Mr. Do-It-All, Aaron Beasley, a two-way standout who has taken his talents to Tennessee, where he’ll play defensive back. He led the team in rushing in addition to roaming the backfield at safety. They also lost their run-first quarterback Alijah Huzzie, now at East Tennessee, also as a defensive back, and another stud at defensive back in Zaylin Wood, now at Middle Tennessee. Running backs Leroy Marsh, Alex Boyd and Ashton Bonner will look to lead the backfield on offense, while defensive back Tray Owens and linebacker Jai Wright will take over on defense. They’ll open with the same non-region schedule as last season (LaGrange, Hapeville Charter, Rockmart and Central-Carrollton), so another 1-2 start is possible.

Hapeville Charter

2018 results: 10-2; Region 6 champions; lost 31-13 to Callaway in the second round.

2019 outlook: After a down year by their standards — and a banner year for most programs — the Hornets look more like the 2017 team that won it all, in terms of being stockpiled with D-I talent. They have two ‘21 four-stars in receiver Jaquez Smith and defensive back Zavier Carter, and a three-star ‘20 defensive back in Armani Maddox, who has offers from Kentucky, Maryland and Syracuse. Jeremy Stephens returns to quarterback the team after being in a timeshare last season and Marcus Carroll will be the workhorse running back. As always with the Winston Gordon-led Hornets, they’ll challenge themselves with their non-region schedule, opening the season with AAA defending state champions Cedar Grove, followed by Heard County.

Callaway

2018 results: 11-3; second place in Region 5; lost 28-22 to Rockmart in the semifinals.

2019 outlook: Two words: Tank Bigsby. It’s the perfect name for a powerful, dominant running back, who took his game to another level in 2018 — especially in the postseason, where he rushed for 778 yards and eight touchdowns in four games — and is now rated by recruited services as one of the nation’s best at his position. He won’t have Keiondre Jones blocking for him anymore — Jones is at Auburn now — but the Cavs still have another Auburn commit in Tate Johnson to anchor the line. Three-star Demetrius Coleman returns at quarterback and holds offers from Alabama, Mississippi and Mississippi State as an athlete and, along with three-stars Charlie Dixon and Jalin Shephard, the three form a strong ‘21 class. Sharman Holmes and Jacob Freeman are two other three-star athletes, but for the ‘20 class, that help to make up a roster loaded with D-I talent, poised for the first state title in program history. 

Rabun County

2018 results: 11-2; 8-AA champions; lost 28-17 to Fitzgerald in the quarterfinals.

2019 outlook: Quarterback Gunner Stockton picked up right where his predecessor Bailey Fisher left off, posting video game-like numbers as a freshman — 190-of-291 passing (65.2 completion percentage) for 2,917 yards and 35 touchdowns to seven interceptions; 105 carries for 709 yards and 17 touchdowns — which have garnered him offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Alabama among others. The recruiting service 247 Sports has him as the nation’s No. 1 dual threat for the ‘22 class. Stockton, along with the Wildcats, will have a new coach this season, however. Well, sort of. Offensive coordinator Jaybo Shaw takes over for his father, Lee Shaw, and the same fast-paced, spread offense the latter ran will remain in place. Like when Stockton took over for Fisher, the Wildcats likely won’t skip a beat with the coaching transition as they seek a sixth consecutive Region 8 title.

Fitzgerald

2018: 10-4; second place in Region 1; lost 38-30 (OT) to Heard County in the semifinals.

2019: The winningest AA school since the turn of the century is in reload mode after losing both of their quarterbacks, three starting receivers and their feature running back, along with their center, left guard and tackle. But no matter how many rebuilds the Purple Hurricane endure, they always come out with at least a playoff appearance, as they have every year since 2000. They came oh-so-close to reaching the title game last year, with a game-winning, 46-yard field goal hitting the upright as time expired. They’ll begin the season with a two-quarterback system of juniors Mac Turner and Rashad Davis. At running back, they’ll lean heavily on senior Mario Clark, with lineman Tony Duffie serving as his lead blocker.

Honorable mentions: Rockmart, Dublin, Brooks County
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If you missed it, here is my spring football coverage of select AA teams:

More related links as the 2018 football season nears

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