50 in 50: North Gwinnett Bulldogs
2012 record: 11-2 overall, 7-1 in Region 7-AAAAAA, lost in quarterfinals to Lovejoy 21-6.
Starters returning: 5 offense, 5 defense
Key players lost: QB Michael Haynes (Mercer), OL DeVondre Seymour (Georgia), DB Donnie Miles (North Carolina), LB Jalen Brooks (Maryland), OL Alex Stoehr (Georgia State).
Key players returning: DE Dante Sawyer, WR Nate Brown, DB Bobby Young, QB Hayden Sphire, WR Caleb Scott, PK Michael D’Angola, OL Mitch Hyatt, LB Carter Cross
Spring practice dates: May 6-17
Outlook: North Gwinnett has averaged 11 victories since coach Bob Sphire came to Suwanee in 2006, winning at least 10 each time. This team should be in the mold of the previous seven. The schedule is rough with Camden County, Grayson and Norcross lined up in the first three games. If the offensive line develops, the Bulldogs could be a top-five team in the state again.
Aug. 24 – Camden County (Georgia Dome)
Aug. 30 – at Grayson
Sept. 13 – at Norcross
Sept. 20 – Meadowcreek
Oct. 4 – at Duluth
Oct. 11 – Mill Creek
Oct. 18 – at Habersham Central
Oct. 25 – Collins Hill
Nov. 1 – at Mountain View
Nov. 8 – Peachtree Ridge
North Gwinnett reached only the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAAA playoffs last season but wound up third in the final AJC rankings because the Bulldogs’ two losses were to state finalists Norcross and Lovejoy.
North Gwinnett had wins over contenders Colquitt County and Grayson and won at least 10 games (finished 11-2) for the seventh straight season.
’’It was one of most unselfish teams we had,’’ North Gwinnett coach Bob Sphire said. “I thought they set a really high bar of expectation for the upcoming team. I don’t know if we were usually the most talented team against a lot of our opponents, but we brought it every Friday night.’’
Shire, who is 78-13 since coming to Georgia in 2006, expects more of the same this season with 10 of 22 starters back.
Replacing an all-county quarterback in Michael Haynes (2,193 yards passing, 632 rushing) and three college-bound offensive linemen will be a focus of spring practice, which begins next month.
The new quarterback will should be fine. It’s the coach’s son, Hayden Sphire (58-of-85 passing, 676 yards, 7 TD in 2012), who rallied North Gwinnett from a 17-0 deficit to win the Peachtree Ridge game 24-20 last season. He’s more of a pro-style, pocket passer, more similar to former Bulldogs Scott Hosch than to Haynes or Mikey Tamburro.
North Gwinnett’s playmakers elsewhere should be outstanding.
C.J. Leggett, a running back with an offer from UCLA, has transferred from Chattahoochee. He’s a bull at 5-10, 215 pounds and also catches the ball well, which is a requisite for a running back in North Gwinnett’s offense.
The leading three receivers are back in Nate Brown, Caleb Scott and Russell King. All caught at least 30 passes last season. Brown has offers from Illinois and Vanderbilt.
Also back is Almonzo Brown (26 catches), a rising junior who is 6-2, 200 pounds. North Gwinnett typically has had smaller receivers, so Brown’s size – he can play receiver or tight end – allows for more versatility in North Gwinnett’s offensive sets.
The offensive line lost starters who signed with Georgia (DeVondre Seymour), Geogia Southern (Andy Kwon) and Georgia State (Alex Shoehr). Rising junior Mitch Hyatt is a Division I recruit. Drequz Smith is the other returner. He might also start on defense.
“That’s probably our biggest issue offensively,’’ Sphire said of the line.
The defense is built around safety Bobby Young, linebacker Carter Cross and defensive end Donte Sawyer. Sawyer is a major D-1 recruit.
North Gwinnett lost defensive coordinator Mo Dixon, who took a similar job at Byrnes in South Carolina. Shire has not named a replacement.
Special teams make Sphire smile. He believes he might have the best pair of kickers in the state in Michael D’Angola and Joshua Hoeft. D’Angola made 14 field goals last season, including the game-winner against Colquitt County and four in the first half in the playoff upset of Grayson.
“He’s money,’’ Sphire said of D’Angola. “If there’s a better one in the state, god bless the team that has him.’’
And then there’s the issue of the schedule. It’s hard to imagine that any team will face a better gantlet in the first three games than North Gwinnett’s string of Camden County (Corky Kell Classic), Norcross and Grayson. That’s four of the past five state champions.
Sphire decided to scrap the annual North Gwinnett double-header that matches two Georgia teams with two out-of-state opponents. Instead, those two Georgia teams – Grayson and North Gwinnett – will play in a regular-season rematch of North Gwinnett’s stunning playoff upset from 2012.
‘’We’ve got a killer schedule, I don’t know if you can base our chances in the playoffs off our regular season,’’ Sphire said. “We might not have that glossy record going in, but by then, we could have a veteran team with some weapons and get on a run. I’ve seen it happen.’’