Underclassmen in the hunt in early POY Watch

No sophomore has ever won the state’s all-classification award, but a couple of 10th-graders – Justice Haynes of Blessed Trinity and Dylan Lonergan of Brookwood – are playing as well as anyone in Georgia four weeks into the season.

Several juniors are also trending highly, too, including Lowndes quarterback Jacurri Brown, who leads GHSF Daily’s first Player of the Year Watch. Juniors Malaki Starks of Jefferson, Thomas Castellanos of Ware County and Gunner Stockton of Rabun County also made the list.

The players here are ranked subjectively on how a year-end vote for player of the year might play out. That entails projecting the players' seasons into December and giving some favor to more high-profile positions and winning teams.

1. Jacurri Brown, Lowndes: The Vikings are in the top 10 of two national polls and No. 2 in Georgia’s Class 7A, and Brown is their leader, a starter since he was a freshman. He has rushed for 346 yards and seven touchdowns on 50 carries in four decisive wins. “The QB is special,” Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio said after Lowndes beat his team 38-13 last week. “I imagine that’s what Cam Newton was like in high school.” Brown (6-4, 205) isn’t passing like Newton yet. He’s 26-of-59 for 467 yards and four touchdowns, but he doesn’t make mistakes (no interceptions). Brown is the consensus No. 6 dual-threat QB prospect nationally among juniors.

2. Phil Mafah, Grayson: Slowed by injuries much of his career, Mafah is healthy now and showing why he’s committed to Clemson. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound back has rushed for 613 yards and eight touchdowns on 67 carries. All four of Grayson’s opponents have been in the top 10 at some point this season. Grayson is 4-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 7A.

3. Justice Haynes, Blessed Trinity: Haynes has rushed for 362 yards on 34 carries in two wins against quality opponents – Kell and Eagle’s Landing Christian. He has scored six touchdowns, one a 30-yard reception. Blessed Trinity, the Class 4A champion the past three seasons, is ranked No. 2 in 5A. Haynes (5-10, 185) is a top-50 national recruit in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports.

4. Malaki Starks, Jefferson: Starks has rushed for 177, 157 and 128 yards – 462 total – in his three games. He’s averaging 12.2 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns. He has played the second half of only one game. Starks is only 4-of-17 passing, but he’s a triple-option quarterback, so his decision-making is critical to an offense averaging 43 points per game. Starks also is a two-way starter stationed in Jefferson’s secondary. He’s a five-star junior recruit who could play cornerback or running back at the next level. Jefferson is 3-0 and ranked No. 2 in Class 4A.

5. Gunner Stockton, Rabun County: Stockton, a five-star junior recruit committed to South Carolina, is having the season expected of him. He’s 59-of-95 passing for 719 yards and nine touchdowns and went over 7,000 yards passing in his career last week. He’s rushed for 434 yards and eight touchdowns. His team lost to Jefferson in a showdown against another five-star recruit, Malaki Starks, but remember that Rabun – 3-1 and ranked No. 3 in Class 2A - is a smaller school.

6. Dylan Lonergan, Brookwood: Brookwood is in the top five of the rankings for the first time in nearly 10 seasons, and this sophomore two-year starter is a big reason. He’s 70-of-100 passing for 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns for a 3-0 team that’s beaten three quality opponents (Dacula, Walton, Mill Creek). He rushed for 128 yards against Walton. Lonergan (6-1, 195) is a top-100 national recruit for the class of 2023, according to 247Sports. He’s also throwing to a pair of blue-chip recruits, Sam Mbake and Denylon Morrissette, who help his cause.

7. Thomas Castellanos, Ware County: Castellanos, a starter since he was a freshman, has been the state’s most consistent dual-threat quarterback. He’s 42-of-67 passing for 753 yards and seven touchdowns, and he’s rushed for 324 yards and six touchdowns. His team is 3-0, beating two top-10 teams, and is ranked No. 4 in Class 5A.

8. Brock Vandagriff, Prince Avenue Christian: Vandagriff is 61-of-86 passing for 937 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 255 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries. The Wolverines' loss to Rabun County doesn’t help, but Prince Avenue is a Class A Private school with a 3-1 record, ranked No. 3.

9. Cody Brown, Parkview: The shutout loss to North Gwinnett doesn’t look good, but it wasn’t Brown’s fault. He has rushed 490 yards – at least 118 in each game – on 43 carries and scored five touchdowns. He’s over 4,000 rushing for his career. Parkview remains a top-10 Class 7A team, and Brown has committed to Tennessee.

10. Chris Paul Jr., Crisp County: He’s a long shot, but the facts are compelling. A linebacker committed to Arkansas, Paul has a team-leading 16 solo tackles and eight tackles for losses (at least two per game) while leading a Class 3A team to shutout victories over Tift County and Houston County and then a 34-14 win over Eagle’s Landing Christian.

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