A deeper look at the top-10 teams in classes 7A-4A

Class 7A

1. Buford (14-1)

AJC Super 11 RB Justice Haynes leads four preseason all-state Wolves as Buford chases its fourth consecutive state titles and first in the highest classification. Buford did graduate QB Ashton Daniels to Stanford, but his replacement, Dylan Wittke, has 13 career starts, 1,725 career passing yards and a pledge to Virginia Tech. Opener: Friday vs. Thompson, Ala.

2. Grayson (10-4)

The Rams won the 2020 title and reached the 2021 semifinals with a much younger team, losing to eventual champion Collins Hill. All-state LB Jalen Smith (committed to Tennessee) and Georgia Power 100 DB Michael Daugherty (LSU) are among eight returning defensive starters. Joseph Taylor is a returning 1,000-yard rusher. Opener: Saturday vs. Marietta (at Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

3. Colquitt County (8-3)

The Packers, under new coach Sean Calhoun, have one of the state’s best quartets of offensive weapons with junior QB Neko Fann (2,014 yards passing in 2021), WR Ny Carr (856 receiving yards, committed to Georgia), TE Landen Thomas (516 receiving yards, committed to Georgia) and RB Charlie Pace (1,138 rushing yards, committed to Georgia State). Opener: Saturday vs. Deerfield Beach, Fla. (at Lowndes)

4. North Cobb (10-2)

AJC Super 11 QB Malachi Singleton (2,348 yards passing, 1,037 rushing, 49 total touchdowns) is a leading player-of-the-year candidate. He’s committed to Arkansas. Other prominent players are Georgia Power 100 OL Robert Grigsby (committed to North Carolina), RB Ben Hall (Michigan) and DB Quintin Ajiero (Duke). Opener: Friday at Westlake

5. Mill Creek (11-2)

The Hawks have the state’s No. 1 prospect, Alabama-committed DB Caleb Downs, among seven returning defensive starters. They also bring back starting QB Hayden Clark (2,065 yards passing) and leading receiver Brendan Jenkins (525 yards receiving). Opener: Saturday vs. Walton (at Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

6. Collins Hill (15-1)

The defending champions graduated most starters, including all-class player of the year Travis Hunter and all-state quarterback Sam Horn. They return all-state LB Dion Crawford and TE Ethan Davis. Opener: Saturday vs. Life Christian, Va.

7. Brookwood (10-3)

The Broncos have the state’s highest-rated senior QB prospect, Dylan Lonergan, who is committed to Alabama. LB Malcolm McCain is committed to Miami of Ohio. Opener: Saturday vs. Norcross (at Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

8. Lowndes (10-3)

The Vikings will be rebuilding a bit after losing four-year starting QB Jacurri Brown to Miami, but four of the five leading tacklers are back, and they’ve won 10 games or more for six straight seasons. They have a new coach, Zach Grage from Thomasville. Opener: Saturday vs. American Heritage, Fla.

9. Walton (9-4)

The Raiders beat two region champions in the 2021 playoffs to reach the semifinals, where they lost to Milton. Junior QB Jeremy Hecklinski gets the job full-time with Zak Rozsman off to Georgia Southern. LB Ashton Woods, a brother of Georgia wide receiver Dominique Blaylock, led the team in tackles as a sophomore. Opener: Saturday vs. Mill Creek (at Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

10. Milton (13-2)

The Eagles promoted Ben Reaves to replace Adam Clack, who led them to a 2018 state title and 2021 runner-up finish. He’ll build around Georgia Power 100 DB Bryce Thornton. Sophomore Luke Nickel is a promising new quarterback. Opener: Friday vs. Lipscomb Academy, Tenn.

Class 6A

1. Hughes (13-2)

The Panthers are ranked No. 1 for the first time in their 14-season history. They lead the state in top-100 state senior prospects with six – OL Bo Hughley, TE Jelani Thurman, DB Terrance Love, WR Robert Lockhart III and DL Joshua Horton. Then there’s Georgia Power 100 QB Prentiss “Air” Noland, a junior. Hughes was the 2021 runner-up to Buford, which moved to Class 7A. Opener: Saturday vs. Spartanburg, S.C. (at Milton)

2. Lee County (11-2)

The Trojans have averaged 12.6 victories over the past five seasons with five region and two state championships (2017, 2018). They lost to eventual champion Buford in the 2021 quarterfinals. Their top players are WR Jevell Fugerson and RB Ousmane Kromah, both Georgia Power 100 picks. Opener: Friday at Warner Robins

3. Rome (8-3)

The Wolves have DL Stephaylin Green and WR/DB Martel Hight, both preseason all-state picks, and TE Martavious Collins, a Georgia Power 100 player. QB Reece Fountain passed for 2,312 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. Opener: Friday vs. Creekside

4. Roswell (10-3)

The Hornets are down from Class 7A, where they made the 2021 quarterfinals, and out of the highest class for the first time since 1985. DB/WR Ethan Nathan and LB Jayven Hall are preseason all-state players. Opener: Friday vs. Denmark

5. Woodward Academy (11-1)

Jelan Woods (1,294 yards passing, 13 touchdowns) is a Division I prospect who should have a big year. DE A.J. Hoffler, a Clemson commit, is a Georgia Power 100 player. LB Myles Graham, a four-star recruit, transferred from a Florida school. Woodward lost to Blessed Trinity in the second round last season. Opener: Friday at Trinity Christian.

6. Marist (10-2)

The War Eagles have won 10 or more games nine of the past 10 seasons and won Class 4A in 2020, but they are making a two-classification jump. Marist’s best all-around player is probably Luke Harpring, a wide receiver/defensive end. He’s the son of former Marist, Georgia Tech and NBA star Matt Harpring. Opener: Friday vs. Gainesville

7. Northside, Warner Robins (9-4)

Northside reached the quarterfinals last season but was not competitive with elite 6A teams. This year’s team has good linemen (Kyle Mixon, Quinton Lewis, Isiah Harvey) and a four-star DB, Ricardo Jones. Opener: Saturday vs. Jones County (at Mercer)

8. South Paulding (8-3)

The Spartans have only three playoff victories in their history, but they have three Georgia Power 100 players on their roster – QB Kasen Weisman, RB Jamrion Wilcox and OL Madden Sanker. Opener: Friday at Harrison

9. Douglas County (8-4)

The Tigers return their leading passer (Sire Hardaway), leading rusher (LaTrelle Murrelle) and leading receiver (Monte Gooden), a Wake Forest commit (Hilton Alexander), their region’s defensive player of the year (Shakai Woods) and a Georgia Tech-committed defensive end (Zachariah Keith). Opener: Saturday vs. Lithia Springs

10. Blessed Trinity (9-5)

The Titans try to reach the quarterfinals for the 10th consecutive season, but the challenge of Class 6A (up one from 2021) and replacing RB Justice Haynes will be difficult. LB Mavrick Torrico was a region defensive player of the year as a junior. Opener: Friday at Calhoun

Class 5A

1. Warner Robins (14-1)

AJC Super 11 defensive tackle Vic Burley, who is committed to Clemson, and three-time 1,000-yard rusher Malcolm Brown lead the Demons’ quest for a third straight state title. Opener: Friday vs. Lee County

2. Creekside (11-3)

The Seminoles lead 5A with four preseason all-state players (OL Caleb Holmes, LB Javeon Miller, DB Roderick McCrary, DB Daiquan White). They lost to Warner Robins in the 2021 semifinals. Opener: Friday at Rome

3. Cartersville (11-1)

The Purple Hurricanes have lost only 10 games over the past 10 seasons and were knocked out of the 2020 and 2021 playoffs by eventual champion Warner Robins. First-team all-region RB Malachi Jeffries should prosper behind a talented offensive line led by preseason all-state Johnathan Cline. Opener: Friday at Cherokee

4. Calhoun (12-3)

Running back Caden Williams rushed for 1,431 yards as a sophomore for the 2021 runner-up. Opener: Friday vs. Blessed Trinity

5. Jones County (10-3)

The Greyhounds, winners of three straight region titles, now share a region with Warner Robins. RB Javious Bond and WR Zion Ragins are Georgia Power 100 players. Judd Anderson, a transfer quarterback from Ridgeland, has offers from Ole Miss and Pitt. Opener: Saturday vs. Northside-Warner Robins (at Mercer)

6. Jefferson (9-2)

Jefferson spent 10 weeks at No. 1 last season before injuries to five-star prospects Malaki Starks (now at Georgia) and Sammy Brown stalled the Dragons’ momentum. Brown, a linebacker /running back, is back. Jefferson has a new coach, Travis Noland, hired from Oconee County. Opener: Friday at Alpharetta

7. Ware County (9-2)

The Gators were the only team to beat Warner Robins last season and won a region title by doing so, but four-year starting QB Thomas Castellanos is now at Central Florida. DL Demetrius Baldwin and LB Trey Hargrove are all-state quality. Opener: Friday at Appling County

8. Clarke Central (10-3)

The Gladiators, starring preseason all-state DL Jailen Howard and DB Malachi McNeill, are the defending Region 8 champions. QB Lucian Anderson III had 20 scholarship offers, one from Yale. Opener: Thursday vs. Cedar Shoals

9. Coffee (8-3)

The Robbie Pruitt coaching era is complete (2012-21) after the coach returned to his native Florida, replaced by Mike Coe, who led Madison County of Florida to four titles in the past five seasons. The team’s five leading tacklers graduated, so there’s some rebuilding in store. Opener: Friday at Tift County

10. Cambridge (9-2)

The Bears return eight defensive starters, leading rusher Christian Isibor and receiver Will Taylor. They must replace QB Zach Harris, who passed for 2,708 yards. Cambridge is down from 6A, where the team advanced a playoff round each of the past two seasons. Opener: Friday vs. Creekview

Class 4A

1. Benedictine (13-2)

The defending champions are out for their fourth state title in 10 seasons. QB Holden Geriner is off to Auburn but replaced by QB Luke Kromenhoek, who is committed to Florida State. WR/CB Za’Quan Bryan and LB Cole Semien are preseason all-state. Opener: Friday vs. Jenkins (at Savannah Memorial)

2. North Oconee (10-4)

ATH Khalil Barnes, the 2021 Region 8 player of the year, joins DB Jack Fabris as preseason Georgia Power 100 players returning from the team that lost to Benedictine 42-32 in the 2021 semifinals. TE/HB K.J. Moon and DL Cole Davidson are also returning all-region players. Opener: Friday at Oconee County

3. Cedartown (11-2)

The Bulldogs return 1,000-yard rusher Harlem Diamond, region co-defensive player of the year Eli Barrow, a linebacker, and preseason all-state OL Peyton Nikopoulus. Cedartown lost to Carver of Columbus 22-21 in the 2021 quarterfinals. Opener: Friday at Rockmart

4. Perry (11-2)

QB Armar Gordon, who passed for 2,990 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2021, is a preseason all-state choice along with DB Cam Marshall. Four of the seven leading tacklers in 2021 were sophomores. So was WR Dakarai Anderson, who has a Texas A&M offer. Opener: Aug. 26 at Houston County

5. Trinity Christian (14-0)

The Lions won Class A Private last season and will play three classes higher this season without star QB David Dallas and several other key parts. Top players this season include DB/WR Aaron Gates (committed to Florida), DE Ethan McDowell (Miami of Ohio) and LB Ryan Earl (Furman). Opener: Friday vs. Woodward Academy

6. Whitewater (11-2)

LB Raul “Popo” Aguirre (committed to Miami) and DL Stephen Johnson (Arkansas) might be the best pair of defenders in the classification. The Wildcats are down from 5A, where they lost to Creekside 20-13 in the quarterfinals. Opener: Saturday at Northgate

7. Bainbridge (9-4)

JahMarion “Bo” Smith passed for 2,087 yards last season. WR/DB Antavious Murphy is an outstanding two-way player. DB Dontae Broadnax made GACA all-state last season. The Bearcats lost to North Oconee 29-24 in the 2021 quarterfinals. Opener: Friday vs. Cedar Grove

8. Troup (8-3)

LB Qua Birdsong and DB Noah Dixon are top-200 national prospects, and QB Taeo Todd (1,794 yards rushing, 1,127 passing in 15 career games) is a class player-of-the-year candidate if he can stay healthy. All are juniors. Opener: Friday at Harris County

9. Holy Innocents’ (11-2)

DL Jacobi Murray and WR Zach Jackson, both juniors, are preseason all-state picks from a team moving up from Class A Private. QB William Wright is another of seven first-team all-region players who return. Opener: Saturday vs. Pace Academy

10. Starr’s Mill (8-4)

The Panthers are down in classification from 5A, where they won five region titles over the past six seasons. Players to watch are RB Greigh Joseph (committed to Army) and TE Josh Phifer (Liberty). Opener: Saturday vs. East Coweta

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