Class 5A blog: Clarke Central to show off stout defense in opener with rival

Credit: For the AJC

Credit: For the AJC

The annual Battle of Athens should get the season off to a grand start on Thursday at 7 p.m. when No. 8 Clarke Central hosts rival Cedar Shoals.

Clarke Central will have numerous new pieces on offense, but has a superior group of stout defensive linemen that could give the Gladiators the opportunity to win a fourth straight region title in a league that has been beefed up with the addition of Jefferson and Flowery Branch.

“Our strongest asset is the defensive line,” coach David Perno said.

That’s where Clarke features seniors Dailen Howard (6-1, 243) and Jaylon Stone (6-2, 311) – both are both receiving DI offers -- and junior Demari Kelley (5-11, 256). Howard is an all-state player who had 22 sacks and 28 tackles for loss last season. The presence of all-state cornerback Malachi McNeill (6-1, 169) doesn’t hurt, either.

Clarke’s offense is led by quarterback Lucian Anderson (6-3, 190), who threw for 984 yards and eight touchdowns and ran for 279 yards and eight touchdowns in 2022.

“It’s only the second time I’ve had a quarterback for two years,” Perno said. “He’s a good player, he’s a good leader and he’s a prospect.”

Gone is 1,000-yard rusher William Richardson, leaving the Glads in a running back by committee situation. There are also plenty of new faces among the receivers.

Clarke Central has won the last three meetings against Cedar Shoals, including 42-21 a year ago, and leads the all-time series 39-16. Gladiators coach David Perno is 5-1 against the Jaguars.

Here’s a look at other top games on opening week:

Friday

Ware County at Appling County, 7:30 p.m.:­ No. 7-ranked Ware County (9-2 in 2021) was the only team to beat Warner Robins last year and won the Region 1 championship. The Gators lost QB Thomas Castellanos, but have an excellent replacement candidate in the strong-armed Niko Smith and a game-breaking receiver in Jarvis Hayes. Ware’s strength may be on defense, where linebacker Trey Hargrave is among the best in the state. Appling is ranked No. 3 in Class 2A after a 12-2 season. The teams haven’t played since 1993, but the series dates back to 1958.

Flowery Branch at Decatur, 7:30 p.m.: These two teams should both be headed toward the playoffs. Flowery Branch went 8-4 a year ago, while Decatur was 8-3. Decatur is led by quarterback Harrison Hannah, who threw for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns, and has a deep threat in Kenric Lanier, who had 31 catches and six TDs in 2021. Flowery Branch has a new coach in Jason Tester, who has been the program’s defensive coordinator. The Falcons have an experienced offensive line, led by Shaun Shockley, and two excellent running backs in Myles Ivey and Malik Dryden.

Creekside at Rome, 8:30 p.m.: This is the finale of the third day of the Corky Kell Kickoff Classic hosted at Rome’s Barron Stadium. Both teams are loaded. No. 2 Creekside, which reached the semifinals last season before falling to Warner Robins, has DI prospects in offensive lineman B.J. Williams, defensive lineman Malik Tullis, linebacker Daveon Miller and defensive back Daiquan White. Rome is the No. 3-ranked team in Class 6A and led by defensive lineman Stephaylin Green. Creekside is accustomed to playing big teams on the road; the Seminoles won last year’s season opener at Grayson. This is the first meeting between Creekside and Rome.

Lee County at Warner Robins, 7:30 p.m.: The two-time defending Class 5A champion Warner Robins Demons begin their crazy-tough non-region schedule again Lee County, the No. 2 team in Class 6A. Warner Robins won 56-30 last year when both teams were ranked No. 1. Lee beat the Demons in 2020.

Blessed Trinity at Calhoun, 7:30 p.m.: These two teams have shared the same region for the last two seasons, but Blessed Trinity got booted upstairs by the new multiplier. Calhoun beat the Titans twice last year, the second time coming in the state semifinals. Calhoun lost QB Christian Lewis and receiver Cole Speer, but returns junior running back Caden Williams, who ran for 1,400 yards last season and has gotten a couple of ACC offers. BT returns linebacker Mavrick Torrico, the co-defensive player of the year in the region, but four-star running back Justice Haynes transferred to Buford.

Saturday

Stephenson vs. Dutchtown, at Stockbridge, 5:30 p.m.: Dutchtown will play its first game under new head coach Niketa Battle, who took Mays to three region titles in his last stop. The Bulldogs went 7-4 a year ago and have become one of Henry County’s more outstanding programs over the last five seasons and won a region championship in 2018. Dutchtown has become known for its defense and returns linebackers Amarion Yarbrough and Dwight Johnson Jr.