The countdown to Region 1 continues. This week, I’m highlighting Region 4. Links from each of the previous region previews will be provided in each upcoming preview.
This eight-team region gives each of its teams just three non-region games to prepare for a seven-game region lineup, but its teams should be well-prepared as non-region challenges wait across the board: Luella faces Cartersville Week 2; Woodward Academy will take on Westminster, Grady and defending AAAA state champion Blessed Trinity; Eastside is taking on Class AAAAAAA’s Newton Week 2; Salem is facing Class AAAAAA runner-up Coffee Week 2; North Clayton is facing two-time defending Class AAAAA state champion Rome in its non-region finale and Henry County (vs. Spalding) and Hampton (vs. Sandy Creek) have also locked down intriguing cross-region contests before the region action kicks off.
Region 4-AAAA: Druid Hills, Eastside, Hampton, Henry County, Luella, North Clayton, Salem, Woodward Academy
Woodward Academy made history last year, sweeping the region for a third straight year and winning a fourth-straight region championship for the first time in its 115-year history. The War Eagles, led by head coach John Hunt, have reached two semifinals and two quarterfinals the last four seasons and recorded 46 wins in the same span (the most successful four years in history). Hunt, the 2014 Class AAAA Coach of the Year, has experience coaching and playing at every level of competition. After a playing career at the University of Florida, and brief stints with the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the left guard spent 1992-1998 coaching high school football in the Sunshine State. Hunt accepted the position of offensive line coach at the University of Florida in 1999, and after five seasons, followed Steve Spurrier to the Washington Redskins (2002-04) and later to the University of South Carolina (2005-08).
Last year’s War Eagles maintained their offensive firepower with 39.1 ppg, but the drop-off defensively was steep. After holding opponents to just 6.85 ppg in 2016, the defense allowed 22 ppg in 2017. Youth definitely factored into this dip as the roster consisted of just 13 seniors, but now Woodward Academy is returning a roster that is very experienced and very capable of competing with any team in the classification next season.
Woodward’s most electric player is Tahj Gary, the reigning Region 4-AAAA Player of the Year, and a do-it-all back that rushed for 19 touchdowns and 1305 yards, while adding a team-high 37 catches, 790 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound 3-star can work in traffic and gash defenses with his speed and physicality when given space, but also has plenty of returning talent to surround him. In total, 22 of the team’s 23 receiving touchdowns were caught by underclassmen a year ago and all 41 of the team’s rushing touchdowns in 2017 came from underclassmen.
Eastside has taken the No. 2 seed in back-to-back seasons and the Eagles’ only two losses have come to Woodward Academy. Eastside head coach Troy Hoff has been with the program since 2006, and took over in 2015 when Rick Hurst left to accept the head coaching job at Pepperrell. Like he did under Hurst, Hoff continues using the run-pass option offense, better known as RPO.
In 2017, however, this system presented early challenges and forced adjustments to the playbook. Sophomore starting quarterback Noah Cook went down in a 20-6 region win over Luella to open the season, and senior Brayden Harper, who also played receiver and linebacker was forced into the job. Harper succeeded in quarterbacking Eastside to the No. 2 seed, but the real benefits could come this season. Harper was less of a thrower than Cook and as a result, Eastside both relied and discovered its ground game. The Eagles accounted for 236.5 rushing yards per game last season and found an interchangeable rotation of backs that should complement a healthy Cook very well next season, giving Hoff an opportunity to showcase the RPO to its potential in 2018.
North Clayton earned the No. 3 seed last year and reached its second-straight postseason, but the future continues looking even brighter for the Eagles. Cap Burnett, a North Clayton standout and former University of Georgia safety left Jonesboro’s coaching staff after the Cardinals posted an 11-2 finish in 2015 and eagerly accepted the head coaching job at his former school. Burnett has a young team returning in 2018, but will be anchored by an experienced offensive line, which returns its entire starting five. Freshman Courtney Colbert and Tyrek Spivey are in the midst of a summer-long quarterback battle, but after snapping a four-year playoff drought with back-to-back postseasons, Burnett is confident in the foundation that has been built. “That’s one thing I love about coaching, each year it challenges me to keep the program running like the year before,” Burnett told Clayton News Daily. “I’ll tell you this, I don’t feel like I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off anymore.”
Salem head coach Jarrett Laws is also entering his third year at the helm, and successfully led the Seminoles into the playoffs last season for just the second time since 2007. Laws has starting quarterback Donald Wilson returning for his senior campaign and is expecting the 6-foot-2 passer to play a significant role this upcoming season. Wilson will be surrounded with a lot of speed, including senior Omarious Burnam, a 3-star athlete with offers from Missouri, Appalachian State, Ball State and Georgia Southern, among others. 3-star wideout Tyler Smith enters his senior year with 21 offers already on the table, and 3-star cornerbacks Keevan Bailey and Artemus McCorkle give Salem an outstanding secondary to complement a very quick defense. Even with all this talent and experience, however, the Seminoles’ scrimmage against Newnan last month was riddled with the same untimely mistakes that have cost the program in recent seasons. The result was a humbling defeat that spiraled into a 45-8 final score, but Laws and his group of seniors are vowing to use it as an opportunity to sharpen their focus the rest of the offseason.
Henry County went 0-10 in 2016 and after opening 2017 with an 0-7 record carried a 21-game losing streak into its final three games of last season. The Warhawks, however, would make things very interesting by closing out the season with three straight region victories and narrowly missing the playoffs with a 3-3 record that was identical to No. 3 seed North Clayton and No. 4 seed Salem. Henry County is probably the only team in the state that missed the playoffs last season, but carries a three-game winning streak into 2018, and the obvious question will be whether or not the program can maintain this momentum. Head coach Morris Starr is confident in his returning quarterback Jaylon West, an All-Region selection a year ago that threw for 1,588 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Luella went 1-9 last year under first-year head coach Jason Jackson, but lost four of its games by fewer than 10 points and also had to encounter eventual Class AAAAAA state champion Lee County in non-region play. Jackson was the linebackers coach on Cartersville’s state championship team in 2015 and has continued the Lions’ defensive-minded approach. The offense remains a work in progress and the Lions will have to find a way to replace all-region running back Latrell Murray, who has been the lead back for multiple seasons. Starr is eager, however, to see Evan Stephens and Dejon Conway step up to fill the void in the backfield next season.
Druid Hills also went 1-9 last year, but fell 40-36 to Luella and was swept in region play. Head coach Myron Burton is entering his third year at the helm, but familiarity should follow him with this year’s rising seniors. Burton has been at the school since 2007 and served as JV head coach in 2015 when the group posted a 4-1 record.
Henry County-based Hampton High School is the newest addition to the region, hailing from Region 4 in Class AAAAA. The Hornets are a young school that opened its doors in 2014. Head coach Chad Ashley has faced the challenge of building a program that not only competed in a full-varsity schedule its first-ever year as a school, but has been placed in difficult regions in all five of its seasons. The Hornets have gone 2-37 in four seasons and did not celebrate a region victory, or home victory, until a 17-14 win over Woodland-Stockbridge last season. Each year, the program is slowly graduating bigger senior classes, and Hampton’s most challenging years are behind them. Ashley will continue to operate his offense out of the option, but the return of senior Jaquari Smith at quarterback should give the playbook more situational flexibility than in years past to keep defenses guessing.