First-year coaches making an immediate impact

Credit: Daniel Varnado/Special to the AJC

Credit: Daniel Varnado/Special to the AJC

One of the better storylines of the 2022 season has been the high number of first-year coaches who have made an immediate impact on their new teams. Of the 80 teams ranked this week, 18 are guided by first-year coaches, and 10 of those were unranked in preseason. Below are 15 outstanding first-year coaches. Each has guided an unbeaten team, one that’s entered the rankings this season or one that’s improved by more than 20 points from 2021 according to the computer Maxwell Ratings, or all three.

*Nick Bach, Pace Academy: Pace has lost six consecutive first-round playoff games since its 2015 state title, never winning more than six games. This season, the Knights face the new challenge of Class 4A after playing in 2A the past two. To replace Chris Slade, Pace hired Bach from the Gilman School in Maryland, though he was better known locally for his success at Mountain View, a Gwinnett County school that won its only playoff game under Bach in 2017. Pace is 5-1 so far and 15.11 points better than in past seasons in the formula used to compute GHSF Daily’s Improvement tracker.

*Niketa Battle, Dutchtown: Battle, who had led Mays to three region titles in his six seasons, inherited a good program but one that had stalled in the first round the past two seasons. Dutchtown is off to a 6-0 start with a victory over defending Class 5A champion Warner Robins. Dutchtown is ranked No. 3 and given an 86.5% chance of winning its first region title since 2018, according to the Maxwell Ratings.

*Marc Beach, Lambert: The Longhorns promoted Beach, their offensive coordinator. Beach had been a head coach at Seabreeze, Fla., where his teams were 98-59 with 10 playoff appearances. Lambert was 7-4 last season and made its first playoff appearance since 2016, so the stage was set. Beach has the Longhorns 5-0 for the first time since 2012 and are ranked for the first time since 2011 at No. 7 in Class 7A.

*Sean Calhoun, Colquitt County: Calhoun coordinated Colquitt County’s offenses during the 2014 and 2015 state championship teams that went 30-0. He left in 2016 to coach Carrollton and spent last season at Vestavia Hills in Alabama. Colquitt County is coming off an 8-3 finish and its first failure to win a playoff game since 2008. Calhoun’s Packers are ranked No. 2 in 7A and 6-0 – meaning they’ve won 36 consecutive games with Calhoun on their side. They’ve won every game this season by three touchdowns or better, including those against Lee County and Cedar Grove.

*Michael Davis, Rabun County: Davis inherited the most consistent winner of any new coach, as the Wildcats have reached the quarterfinals or better for seven straight seasons, but he had to replace Gunner Stockton, the record-setting quarterback and four-year starter now at Georgia. Davis was promoted from offensive coordinator, but he made his name in that role for 20 years at Calhoun, so he’s an expert on winning consistently. The Wildcats are 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in Class A Division I.

*Jeremy Edwards, Houston County: Edwards was Warner Robins’ offensive coordinator the past three seasons, and the past two ended in state titles. The 2021 Demons team averaged 47.7 points per game. Now, Edwards’ Bears are scoring at a 45.5 clip, and the team is 5-1, its loss to No. 2 Lee County last week. Houston County was 4-7 last season and 21-34 since Jake Fromm graduated in 2017.

*Jonathan Gess, Hebron Christian: Hebron is GHSF Daily’s Team of the Week for its 6-0 start and victory over then-No. 5 Oconee County in a Class 3A game last week. Gess is the coach who made a state power out of six-time Class A champion Eagle’s Landing Christian. Hebron is chasing the first region title since it began varsity football in 2007. According to the Improvement Tracker, Hebron is 20.86 points better than in recent seasons.

*Garrett Grady, Brunswick: Grady was Brunswick’s offensive coordinator last season and got the job when Sean Pender went to North Hall. In his first head-coaching opportunity, Grady has the Pirates 6-0 and ranked No. 9 in Class 6A. Brunswick was 11-1 in 2021 and is favored to repeat as Region 2 champion.

*Jeff Hammond, Worth County: The Rams had averaged only 2.2 wins per season since 2017. Now, they’re 6-0 for the first time since 1989. This week’s game against No. 1 Fitzgerald won’t be easy, but Worth is already 2-0 in region play and projected to make its first playoff appearance since 2017. Hammond has worked under 300-game winners Robby Pruitt at Coffee and Rush Propst at Colquitt County. He was Spalding’s head coach in 2019, but the fit wasn’t right, and he moved back to south Georgia, where he is thriving again.

*Justin Rogers, Thomas County Central: Rogers left a higher-profile job at Colquitt County to take on rebuilding the Yellow Jackets, who faced the extra challenge of moving up two classes into 6A. That’s after going 22-29 the past five seasons. So far, it’s been a breeze. Thomas Central is 6-0, the program’s best start since 2007 and the most victories in a season since 2016. The closest game has been a 35-14 victory over then-No. 5 Bainbridge of Class 4A. The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 7 and a stunning 32.40 points better than in recent seasons, according to the Improvement Tracker.

*Bobby May, Kell: One of Cobb County’s most consistently good programs, Kell had gone back-to-back seasons without a playoff victory for the first time since 2008-09. Kell then hired Westlake’s coach, May, whose head-coaching experience also extended to years in his native Florida. The Longhorns are 5-0 for the first time since 2014 and ranked No. 7 in Class 5A. The Maxwell Ratings give Kell a 32.5% chance of winning their first region title since 2014.

*Josh Niblett, Gainesville: Niblett’s hire made the biggest news of any last offseason. He’s won seven state titles in Alabama, six at Hoover. But Gainesville had averaged only 4.5 victories the past five seasons, so the rebuild was expected to take time. Instead, the Red Elephants are 6-0 and ranked No. 5 in Class 6A. They were unranked in preseason but entered after a 34-23 victory over then-No. 6 Marist in the opener. Gainesville has a 94.1% chance of winning Region 8, according to Maxwell. It would be the program’s first title since 2013.

*Jaybo Shaw, Wayne County: Shaw came to Wayne County after a three-year run at Rabun County during which he was 35-5 with three region titles. Wayne County was 0-9 last season. Now, the Yellow Jackets are 4-1 and ranked No. 9 in Class 4A. Their best victory was against then-No. 3 Appling County of Class 2A. And Shaw is winning with a freshman quarterback, another sign that the future is bright in Jesup.

*Byron Slack, Cook: The Hornets are 5-1, their only loss to Valdosta, and racing toward their first winning season since 2015. They’ve beaten Brooks County and Clinch County. Unranked in preseason, they are No. 4 in Class 2A and are the main contenders along with Hammond’s Worth County squad to unseat No. 1 Fitzgerald in Region 1. Slack has been a top assistant at Colquitt County, Lowndes and Camden County. Slack’s coaching path is like that of Hammond’s. Mentored by some of the state’s best coaches, Slack went north to be Hillgrove’s coach in 2019, but it didn’t work out. He’s back in south Georgia, where he’s found the winning formula.

*Heath Webb, Lumpkin County: Despite its loss to Wesleyan last week, Lumpkin County remains the most improved good team in the state, according to the Improvement Tracker, some 37 points above what was expected. The Indians were 7-43 over the previous five seasons, and now they’re 5-1. Lumpkin is on track for its first playoff appearance since 2014 and first winning season since 2011. Webb was Gainesville’s coach last season.

*Others: Terrance Banks, Greene County; Jon Cudd, Adairsville; Larry Harold, Central Gwinnett; Keith Hatcher, ACE Charter; Cecil Lester, Dooly County; Todd Wofford, Meadowcreek

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