By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
Here we go, Class A fans. Three things to watch for Friday, and a new feature, “Top 5 Faves,” where we’ll check in with some of the top players in the state’s smallest (but just as competitive) classification.
1. How will Savannah Christian handle finally getting some love from the pollsters? The Raiders have quietly become one of the most successful programs in the state. After going 6-4 in 2005, his first season, head coach Donald Chumley and his staff have gone 56-10 since, including appearances in the last two state championship games (both losses). Now, after starting the season ranked No. 4, Savannah Christian has been dubbed No. 1 after shutting out McIntosh County Academy last week (30-0).
Chumley said the Raiders, who travel to Wheeler County (1-0) Friday, are looking at the ranking as a challenge.
“We set our goals and standards high and so this is something that you want. But this ain’t the BCS so it really doesn’t matter,” Chumley said. “We have playoffs and the goal is to be successful once you get there.”
Before Raider fans get too carried away, Chumley cautions that Savannah Christian lost eight seniors off of last year’s club, all playing on the college level now, including standout linebackers Tanner Burch (Gardner Webb) and Eric Wickham (Dartmouth). Building depth by developing younger players will be the key to making another deep run into the state playoffs.
But there is still abundant talent on the roster in players like nose tackle DeAngelo Brown (6-1, 285), an Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) recruit with offers from Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Louisville to name a few. Other Raiders who will most likely play on the next level are two-way lineman Josh Gay (6-3, 270), defensive back/receiver Nardo Govan (6-3, 225) and defensive back/receiver Will Austin (5-11, 185). Junior linebacker/fullback Scott Brannon (6-0, 195) and senior quarterback Jonathan Chamblee have stepped up as well, Chumley said.
“People are going to get hurt and go down,” Chumley said, “but it’s those unexpected kids who are the ones that get you to the Dome, and that’s the great thing about coaching, seeing those types of kids develop, get better and rise to the occasion.
“We just want to keep getting better and keep growing as a team,” Chumley said. “Being No. 1 now is nice but we want to be playing in Game 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.”
Chumley, who was named the private school’s athletic director in January, has some very interesting things to say about those who accuse private schools like his of “recruiting.” Tune in next week. Some of his quotes are priceless.
2. Will Darlington continue to make its case? Despite smacking Class AA Sonoraville by three touchdowns in the opener and then knocking off one of south Florida’s top private school programs, Miami-Dade Christian (42-35), last week, Darlington dropped one spot to No. 9. Wow.
But the Tigers are used to being overlooked in spite of having one of the most consistent programs in Georgia. Darlington, located in Rome, hasn’t had a losing season since 1993. Head coach Tommy Atha, now in his 10th season, has a good feeling about this year’s team.
“We not a program that goes out blowing our horn or anything like that,” Atha said. “We just go out and prepare each week, play hard and try to win.”
Darlington made a big statement last week when it went down to Orlando and beat Dade Christian, largely on the efforts of junior quarterback Brad Butler, who threw two touchdown passes and ran for three more, including a 73-yarder.
“That was really impressive to see him pull away from those South Florida kids like that,” Atha said of Butler’s speed. “I don’t think they expected that. [Dade Christian head coach Mike] Sonneborn said if Brad was playing in South Florida he probably would already have offers coming at him left and right. But I’m sure his time will come. He’s a special player and an even better young man.”
Butler has two FBS-caliber receivers to throw to in seniors Cameron Gibson (6-0, 190) and Nigel Matthews (6-3, 192), who has offers from Air Force, Alabama-Birmingham and Georgia Southern. On defense, linebacker Chase Tolbert (6-2, 215) and two-way lineman Gavin Lawrence (6-0, 240) are standouts garnering attention from college recruiters.
Still, Atha said some of his younger players will have to step up if Darlington is to break through into the truly elite level of teams. Sophomore defensive back Will Mathis (5-10, 165) answered the call last week, picking off a pass from Kansas-bound Dade Christian quarterback Bilal Marshall, a play that Atha said “tuned the game around for us.” The Tigers will face another stiff challenge Friday when they travel to Class AAA Cartersville (0-1).
“Our young kids will have to keep stepping and we’ll have to keep getting better each week,” Atha said. “We hammer it into our kids that their work ethic has to exceed their expectations. As long as we keep that in mind, we can be OK.”
3. How will ELCA handle losing its opener? Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy was the pre-season No. 1 team before losing 21-18 to Alabama’s 2010 Class 5A state runners-up Briarwood Christian. But the Chargers were ready to get back to work in preparation for Friday’s battle with neighborhood rival Class AAA Henry County (1-0).
But Charger head coach Jonathan Gess said he and his staff plan to lighten the load a bit for several of the team’s two-way stalwarts, at least until the weather gets a little cooler. Standouts Keyonte Green, John Tatum, Justin Thomason and Josh Shockley were all gassed or suffering from severe cramps by the time the fourth quarter rolled around last week against Briarwood Christian.
“We’re going to change our philosophy a little bit,” Goss said. “We’re going to have to have confidence in some of our other kids and help them develop, so we can make sure that guys like Keyonte and Justin are fresher at the end of the season when it’s time for the playoffs.”
One such player, senior defensive back Cole Walker (5-10, 185), Gess said, will step in for Tatum on defense for a ton of snaps.
“We’ve got confidence in Cole that he will be able to do the job for us,” Gess said.
Top 5 Faves. In a new segment of the blog, we’ll check in with some of the top players in Class A. This week it’s Our Lady of Mercy junior Rashard Fant. The lightning-quick defensive back/running back/kick returner, who scored 22 touchdowns last season for the Bobcats, returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and gained 200 yards of total offense in the first half of last week’s 35-33 loss to Class AA Temple (he sat out most of the second half with severe cramps).
Fant is among a group of performers – including two-way lineman Matt Franks, quarter back Lance McGuffie, defensive back Lake McGuffie, safety/receiver Jordan Sartor (the 2011 Class A champion in the 200 meters), defensive back/receiver John “J.K.” Keuler and linebacker Chauncey Laboo – trying to make a winner out of the Fayetteville private school. Here are some of Fant’s favorites:
Thing about Our Lady of Mercy: “Coach [Mike] Earwood. He knows so much and you know he’s going to make you a better player and make this a better program. He makes us all feel safe.”
Sport: “Basketball. I’ve been playing since I was five years old. I love it.”
Performer: “Tre Songz. I listen to him before every game. His music calms me down.”
Food: “My dad’s chicken parmesan. The sauce is delicious. It gets me everytime.”
Subject: “Math. I love figuring out and solving problems. I’m taking honors pre-calculus now. I want to be an accountant.”
Send your Class A news items and top performers to S. Thomas Coleman at email@example.com.