Games to watch: McIntosh seeks first 4-0 start since 2017

The McIntosh football team runs onto the field before its game with Woodland on Sept. 1, 2023. McIntosh won the game 37-21.

Credit: Special photo - Shawn Hall

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The McIntosh football team runs onto the field before its game with Woodland on Sept. 1, 2023. McIntosh won the game 37-21.

Credit: Special photo - Shawn Hall

Credit: Special photo - Shawn Hall

When Derek Smith was being recruited to become the head football coach at McIntosh High School, one of the things he did on his visit was walk around and take a look at some of the school’s non-football athletes walking the halls. Why, he wondered, isn’t that guy playing football? So he approached many of the boys who were involved with other sports – basketball, baseball, lacrosse, etc. -- and encouraged them to play football.

The results were positive and the fruit of his recruiting is evident – on the field and in the win column, where the Chiefs are 3-0.

“I saw talented kids who could help the program and I asked them to come out and play football,” Smith said. “When I was a kid we played all the sports, because if I wasn’t playing a sport, I had to study or do chores … and that’s no fun.”

The Chiefs, who have a tough test scheduled on Friday against undefeated Central Carroll, has made huge strides on defense.

The defense is led by defensive end Uche Iloh (6-foot-7, 240 pounds), who was the Region 3 basketball player of the year last season. But Smith believes Iloh has even more potential to play college football and one day play on Sundays.

“The upside is there,” Smith said. “He’s a tough kid to block.”

Smith said the secondary is talented enough to play man-to-man coverage and allow the front seven to focus on stopping the run.

“We have 11 good defenders that trust each other and play together,” Smith said.

The offense has flourished in its second season of Smith’s spread attack that averages 75 snaps per game and looks for a 50-50 split between passes and runs. Quarterback Elliott Sturbaum, a first-year starter, has already thrown for 764 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s done a nice job replacing Tate Morris (an all-region baseball player), who threw for 3,014 yards and 24 yards in 2022.

“We knew (Sturbaum) had the talent,” Smith said. “I wasn’t sure if he was going to mentally turn the corner as fast as he has. I preach to them every day, it’s about making the smart play. To me, if you have five incomplete throwaways a game that you throw into the seats, that’s better than throwing an intereption. We’re going snap the ball 75 times a game and the mathematics tells us that when you snap the ball 75 times, you’re’ going to score points.”

It helps to have 6-foot-5 receiver Landon Dolhancyk (another recruit from the basketball team), who has 20 catches for 392 yards and three touchdowns. Hollis Davidson (nine receptions) and Cole Landgaard (seven receptions) round out a talented group of receivers.

Running backs Aaron Ajie (286 yards) and Brendan Ridley (198 yards) have been outstanding and Ridley, a sophomore, has great potential. The Chiefs also have a good kicker in Arthur Richez.

McIntosh has scored 111 points in its first three games, -- 37 in each game -- the most scored through the first three games in school history.

Smith brought a successful track record with him when he took the McIntosh job before the 2022 season. He is a 26-year veteran who spent the previous eight seasons at Viera High School near Cocoa Beach, Fla. He was the head coach there the last four years and went 26-17 with three district championships and two visits to the regional finals. Smith came in last season to replace Lee Belknap and the team went 5-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when the team won its first five games and had its most recent winning record.

“We’re trying hard to change the culture at McIntosh High School to a winning culture as opposed to being somebody’s homecoming game type of thing,” he said.

Five other games to watch this week:

Ware County at Benedictine: The marquee match features a pair of No. 1 teams and defending state champions – Ware County (3-0 in Class 5A and Benedictine (3-0 in Class 4A). Ware County won last year’s game 14-10 and went on to post an undefeated season. Benedictine didn’t lose another game. BC is led by quarterback Luke Kromenhoek, a Florida State commit who has thrown for 208 yards and four touchdowns. Ware County has gotten solid play from first-year quarterback Luke Hooks (408 yards passing, three TDs), but lives on the ground behind R.J. Boyd (244 yards, three TDs) and Dae’jeaun Dennis (188 yards, one TD).

Warner Robins at Valdosta: Arguably the two most iconic football programs in the state meet during the regular season for the fourth straight year. Valdosta won last year’s game 25-0, but Warner Robins had won the two previous year when they resumed the non-region series. Warner Robins took advantage of the high school transfer portal last week when quarterback Judd Anderson played for Jones County on Friday, enrolled at Warner Robins on Monday and led the Demons to a win over Northside on Friday.

Decatur at Greater Atlanta Christian: GAC has been riding the arm of quarterback Jack Stanton and has jumped back into the state rankings at No. 10. Stanton has thrown for 738 yards and six touchdowns, but it was the defense that saved the day in the 17-14 win over Pace Academy. The Spartans forced two fumbles, the last one coming in the fourth quarter to prevent Pace from tying or winning the game. Decatur (2-1) has won two straight and knocked off Southwest DeKalb 27-12 last week.

Oconee County at Jefferson: Jefferson coach Travis Noland was at Oconee County before he took the job at Jefferson a year ago. The No. 6-ranked Dragons relies heavily on running back Sammy Brown (303 yards, eight TDs), but Gavin Markey has developed into a solid passer (318 yards, four TDs) who likes to spread the ball around. Oconee County (1-2) is young in spots with junior quarterback Titus Watkins (621 yards, four TDs passing; 162 yards, three TDs rushing) and sophomore Caiden Woods (207 yards rushing, four TDs).

Gainesville at Clarke Central: The No. 9-ranked Gladiators will have their hands full on defense against the powerful Red Elephants, the No. 1 team in Class 6A. Clarke Central (2-0) built on its opening night success by outlasting Oconee County 38-31. Riley Berrong has thrown for 167 yards and Corey Watkins has run for 356 yards and four touchdowns behind an offensive line that features Garrett Hobbs and Nick Paul. Clarke’s defense will be tested by a deep versatile attack led by quarterback Baxter Wright (298 yards) and running back Gavin Hall (350 yards, four TDs). Linebackers Kendrick Curry and Alexander Leahy and defensive backs Bartez Gillespie and Xavier Bailey need to have good nights.

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