It’s hard to get on with the future without reconciling the past. So it is with Grayson football, which had a memorable 2012 season for some of the wrong reasons.
Nationally ranked and picked to win a second straight state championship, the team underachieved.
The Rams did win Region 8-AAAAAA. They won 10 games. They blew out 10 opponents, including McEachern (Region 5 champion), Central of Miami (nationally ranked) and Brookwood (beat 10-0 Lassiter in the first round). Nobody wanted to play Grayson in the playoffs.
But four turnovers in each of two games – a 22-7 loss to Parkview in September and a 28-10 loss to North Gwinnett in the playoffs – conspired to ruin a season that many assumed would end with at least a state championship, if not a national title.
‘’I don’t think they need to be thrown under the bus,’’ Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. “They won a region championship, which is hard to do in Region 8. Winning a state championship is tough to do. I think all of us – coaches, parents, players, media – we don’t understand how tough it is sometimes. It was lesson we learned for sure.’’
‘’It’s human nature to become complacent. It wasn’t that they didn’t come into the game prepared or wanting to win, but just that fire in the belly and intensity weren’t the same. I want to get that back. You’ve got to stay humble, and you’ve got to stay hungry.’’
Humility shouldn’t be an issue for the 2013 Rams. Grayson returns only two starters – a running back and one of three tackles who rotated on the offensive line. Gone are seven players who signed with major Division I programs. That includes defensive end/running back Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 recruit in the country.
Conn emerged optimistic from spring practice, which concluded last week. He notes that Grayson’s JV and ninth-grade teams went undefeated in 2012 and won their region championships. And remember that Grayson was winning before the vaunted class of 2012 entered the ninth grade. The Rams have won at least 10 games each of the past six seasons.
‘’I still think we’re in good shape,’’ Conn said. “We’ve got a lot of young players coming up that are ready, guys that got some quality reps last year that will be filling in. We just lack the experience that you need.’’
The inexperience prompted Conn to schedule a preseason scrimmage against AAAAA champion Gainesville and reigning state player-of-the-year Deshaun Watson. Grayson didn’t play a scrimmage last season because it had an experienced team and didn’t want to risk injury.
Grayson also will play Colquitt County in the Corky Kell Classic (instead of McEachern) and replaced Miami Central with Gwinnett County rival North Gwinnett in a rematch of the 2012 playoffs.
‘’The early scrimmage and the first two games will be important,’’ Conn said. “The speed of the game is a lot different than it is at sub-varsity.’’
Of Grayson’s returning players, the best known is probably running back Aares McCall. Noted for his speed, McCall rushed for 764 yards and scored five touchdowns on 97 carries last season (7.9 ypc). He was Grayson’s second-leading rusher.
‘’He may be one of the best running backs ever to come through here,’’ Conn said. “When he puts his foot down, he can go. He doesn’t stutter step. He’s very decisive with his cuts and very explosive out of his cuts. A lot of people are going to see a special player in him.’’
Grayson is deep at the position, which bodes well in a Wing T offense, which requires the fuel of several good runners. Rising juniors Mohamed Barry and A.J. Stinson are varsity-ready.
The quarterback likely will be rising junior Hunter Schuessler, brother of Nick, who led Grayson to the 2011 state title. Hunter is 6-foot-4, 190. He has the passing skills to allow Grayson to run more shot-gun formations and spread the field.
The least experienced part of Grayson’s offense, and team, is the offensive line.
‘’We’re going to have to find some players this summer,’’ Conn said. “The size and frame of these kids is there. We’re just got to get guys hungry and learn the offense more. In today’s offenses, so much is no-huddle and checks at the line. They’re really going to have to get into the film room and learn. Fortunately, a lot of them have been running this system since they were little kids.’’
No starters return on defense, but Conn is excited about Justin Young, a rising junior who will pay defensive end and nose tackle. Young (6-4, 255) played right tackle on offense last year.
‘’I’m telling you, he’s as good as anybody we’ve ever had,’’ Conn said. ‘’He’s different than Robert [Nkemdiche], but as good or better in some areas on the defensive line.’’
As good as Nkemdiche? How can that be?
‘’From what I’ve seen this spring in comparing him to Robert, he’s going to be able to stuff those double teams better, which is something we struggled with across the defensive line last year,’’ Conn said. “He can hold a double team and have the speed to rip loose and get into the backfield.’’
The top linebacker is rising junior Daniel Fennell, who has an offer from Miami. He’s 6-2, 2012, and runs well.
Grayson’s secondary lost four players who signed, but Conn considers rising junior safety Jordan Hayes to be in the same athletic discussion as those before him.
“It’s unfair to compare them to a guy who hasn’t been in the fire, but he has as much ability as any of those guys going into his junior year,’’ Conn said. “His upside is really good.’’
Grayson also is breaking in a new defensive coordinator. William Andrews is now head coach at East Jackson. Conn promoted Lenny Gregory, the defensive line coach.
Grayson at a glance:
2012 record: 10-2, won Region 8-AAAAAA, lost to North Gwinnett 28-10 in the second round.
Starters returning: 2 offense, 0 defense
Key players lost: DE/RB Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), RB Wayne Gallman (Clemson), DB David Kamara (Ole Miss), DB Ryan Carter (Clemson), DE Jack Banda (Arizona), DB Kasey Gaines (Penn State), LB Zach Barnes (Texas Tech)
Key players returning: RB Aares McCall, OL/DL Justin Young, LB Daniel Fennell, DB Jordan Hayes, QB Hunter Schuessler
Spring practice dates: Completed May 17
24-Aug vs. Colquitt County (Georgia Dome)
30-Aug vs. North Gwinnett
13-Sep vs. Parkview
20-Sep at Dacula
27-Sep vs. Shiloh
4-Oct at Central Gwinnett
11-Oct vs. Berkmar
18-Oct at South Gwinnett
1-Nov vs. Archer
8-Nov at Brookwood
Outlook: No other Top 10 program in Class AAAAAA lost more starters than Grayson. Seven signed with major FBS programs, including DE Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 recruit in the country, to Ole Miss. But Grayson is no flash-in-the-pan program. The Rams were 13-1 in 2008, before the current graduating class was in high school, and the JV and ninth-grade teams went undefeated in 2012. So don’t expect any lowering of expectations as they look for their seventh straight 10-win season this fall.