Class 5A blog: Fresh approach has Decatur on verge of region title

Top games to watch this weekend

Some Decatur fans thought coach William Felton was nuts for playing state power Cedar Grove for its spring game and for front-loading the schedule with difficult non-region opponents. But the third-year coach had a strategy, and it has paid off, with the Bulldogs one win away from winning their first region title since 2004.

Felton reflected on the late-season struggles the last two years and wanted to take steps to avoid a repeat. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Decatur won its first six, but lost the season finale and was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. Last year the Bulldogs won their first eight, but lost the next three and got bounced in the first round.

This year Felton designed the schedule to create more challenges early in order to expose their weaknesses while they were still fixable. It worked.

“Those winning streaks the past two years didn’t help us identify our deficiencies until it was too late,” Felton said. “It was important to deal with the bumps and bruises early and help us identify the things we need to tighten up on, as every opponent we played in the non-region was a high-caliber, very disciplined team. It was very profitable, and it has allowed us to get to this point.”

It began with Decatur playing Cedar Grove in the spring. The Saints were coming off a state championship -- their fourth in six seasons -- and field one of the most talented teams in the state.

“I wanted my kids to see what a state champion looks like and see how they carry themselves so they could mimic that and use that,” Felton said. “You always want to win, but I think the win for us came from the exposure we got. I’ve never been in a spring game where you had 40 scouts in the stands. Some of my kids got looks that weren’t on people’s boards at first. We won in a lot of ways and it carried over to the season.”

Decatur lost four of its first five games but has won its first three Region 4 games in convincing fashion. The Bulldogs play Chamblee (6-1, 3-0) at North DeKalb Stadium for the region title on Friday. Chamblee is trying to win its first region championship came in 1982 – before some of the parents of the current players were born. Click here to read an earlier story about Chamblee.

Decatur’s offense has been proficient behind three-year starter Harrison Hannah, who has thrown for 2,044 yards and 17 touchdowns.

“He’s done a great job keeping us afloat,” Felton said. “I tell him he’s one of the primary reasons we’re here because of his mental fortitude and his ability to help carry the team. He’s a great leader.”

Hannah has outstanding targets in Kenric Lanier (44 receptions, 705 yards, seven touchdowns) and Kedric Lackey (28 catches, 664 yards, five touchdowns). Lanier is a Vanderbilt commit who will compete in the All-American Bowl.

Malachi Miller “has had an All-American sort of year,” Felton said. The versatile junior leads the team with 250 rushing yards and has caught nine passes – with six of them going for touchdowns – and a 28.7-yard average.

The line is led by veteran two-way tackle Tyjae Richardson, center Bennett Knapp and left tackle Quay Hood, who broke into the lineup as a sophomore.

Marquis Hood, Quay’s older brother, returned to the lineup from a 2021 knee injury five weeks ago against Greater Atlanta Christian and has given the defense a boost. He has 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 10 hurries since his return.

Hood and his teammates will have their hands full with slowing down Chamblee quarterback Fabian Walker Jr., who has thrown for 1,131 yards and 16 touchdowns and run for 322 yards. Jordan “Juice” Thornton has 30 catches and earlier became the school’s all-time receiving leader. Larry Harris has been a steady, reliable running back.

Decatur holds a 7-5 lead in the all-time series, which dates back to 1956. Decatur has won the last two meetings, most recently in 2017.

Five other important games this week:

Warner Robins at Jones County: These two teams are among the four-way tie for first place. Warner Robins (4-4, 3-1) has won three straight and is starting to resemble the sort of program that has been to five straight state championship games. Jones County (5-3, 3-1) continues to get healthy and shows signs of lighting its offensive rocket. Warner Robins leads the series 4-3 and won last year’s game 49-21.

Northside Columbus at McIntosh: Northside (8-1, 3-0) could clinch the region championship with a win over McIntosh (4-4, 1-1). A McIntosh win would mean a likely three-way tie, with Northgate, which finishes the season next week against winless Drew. McIntosh is led by second-year quarterback Tate Morris, who has thrown for 2,438 yards and 17 touchdowns and run for 798 yards and three touchdowns.

Cartersville at Dalton: The two Northeast Georgia teams are in a three-way tie for the Region 7 lead with Calhoun, each one with a 3-1 league record. Cartersville (8-1) has won three straight since its triple-overtime loss to Calhoun. Dalton (5-4) has returned to the playoff picture after not qualifying the last two seasons. Running back Tyson Greenwade is the leading rusher in Class 5A with 1,721 yards and eight 100-yard games.

Winder-Barrow at Eastside: Region 8, the deepest league in Class 5A, is going to go down to the wire when it comes to determining who makes the playoffs. This week’s contest between Winder-Barrow (5-3, 2-2) and Eastside (5-3, 2-2) could determine who stays home.

Both teams prefer to run the ball. Winder-Barrow averages 204.5 per game, and senior Tyreek Hall has rushed for 1,008 yards and 10 touchdowns. Eastside averages 250.8 yards on the ground, with Kenai Grier carrying for 1,003 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Greater Atlanta Christian at Chattahoochee: These two are among three teams tied for third place in Region 6 with two region losses: GAC (4-4, 2-2), Chattahoochee (2-6, 2-2) and Centennial (3-5, 2-2). Chattahoochee, winner of two straight, is trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017. The Cougars need to win out (Kell next week) because they lost to Centennial on Sept. 29.