NORTH GWINNETT PREVIEW
North Gwinnett looked as if it would fall just short in its second-ever championship game and remain without a state title trophy. The Bulldogs were trailing Colquitt County 17-16 in the Class AAAAAAA title game after Cam Clark's missed extra point and Colquitt's touchdown with 49 seconds left. But North Gwinnett moved the ball with several big plays, and then a series of costly Colquitt penalties ended up giving Clark a chance at redemption on an untimed down. Clark came through with a 38-yard field goal to give the program its first title.
||RB Tyler Goodson. Credit: AJC
"We felt like we got ourselves in a position to win the thing, and like we did all year, we finished in the fourth quarter," said Bill Stewart, who won the championship in his first year at the school.
Now it's a new era for North Gwinnett football with a trophy in the case and a mix of established stars and new talent back on the field.
"It was a great spring," Stewart said. "We've gotten stronger, faster throughout the offseason."
Both Stewart and assistant Jeff Carlberg are quick to praise the improved strength of their players, and Carlberg credits head strength coach R.J. Luke's program for those gains. The Bulldogs' spring culminated with a game against neighborhood program Lanier.
Even though there will be a new player under center, the Bulldogs have many returning weapons on offense. Gone now are Cade Fortin and Jimmy Urzua at quarterback; Urzua, a D-II Mars Hill signee, took the reins of the offense after Fortin, headed to North Carolina, went down with injury in the second game of the year and could not return. Now, two juniors-Brian McGlynn and J.R. Martin-and one senior-William Goldring-are battling it out for the starting job.
The running back tandem will be scary-good. Senior Tyler Goodson exploded with his performances throughout the playoffs, rushing for 724 yards and 10 touchdowns in five games to start attracting the recruiting attention of the powerhouses. Junior Devin Crosby is a budding star who rushed for over 600 yards last season as the No. 3 back behind Goodson and Cam Butler, now graduated.
"Obviously Tyler is getting all the attention, and deservedly so, he's our bell cow," Stewart said. "But Devin Crosby is definitely going to be critical. He's really good."
At receiver, Josh Downs returns after logging over 1,000 yards last season as a sophomore. Downs combines great ball skills with quickness and good speed in the open field. Behind him, the brother combo of Javonni (Sr., also handles return duties) and Jarvis Cunningham provides athletic talent. Junior Dalton Pearson could be set for a breakout year, and three seniors-Riley Walker, Garrison Manor and Bryce Fowler-will provide depth.
The offensive line will again be top-notch, as T.J. Skinner, Justin Bullock and Will Hamilton are physical road-graders who started nearly every game last season as juniors.
On defense, the Bulldogs sport one of the most talented secondary duos in the state. Senior cornerback Warren Burrell and senior safety Quinton Newsome are big-play guys who have offers from everyone, and they will anchor a unit that must bring several inexperienced players into the rotation. Juniors Cam Hinson and Taylor Goodson, Tyler's younger brother, are expected to step into larger roles, as is senior Zach Mollette. But the overall depth and talent are there for the secondary to carry the defense as the front seven tries to cover heavy losses from graduation.
"Both of them are recruited by everybody, but they're also great leaders," Stewart said of Burrell and Newsome. "They have taken the bull by the horns in our secondary and on the defense as far as being leaders. And so I'm really proud of them as far as what they're doing."
The linebacking corps loses Jayden McDonald, now at Iowa, and Jake Stewart, the head coach's son who joins Urzua at Mars Hill. Senior Nick Pucciarello started last season and will anchor the unit this fall, while classmates J.D. Davis and Will Hunter will see increased roles. Major Carlberg, the assistant's son, will be in the rotation as well.
The defensive line will be inexperienced but has loads of potential. The Bulldogs lost three very good starters off last year's line, but senior Bryson Scruggs returns as a starter on the outside. Jared Ivey could be ready for a breakout after getting spot duty as a sophomore; Ivey is 6-foot-6, 225 pounds with athleticism. Trey Williams and Chuck Smith, the son of the former Falcons Pro Bowl defensive end, will also contribute on the outside. On the inside, Chris Miles, Brayden Rouse, Malik Blue and others are fighting for snaps.
"I feel like we got a good rotation in our spring game and we've got eight guys there that can play at any given point, and that's what you're going to need in this league trying to compete," Stewart said of his front four. "So I feel like we have some depth there. It's new depth, but I think we have some guys that can do it."
On special teams, Clark, the hero of the 2017 title game, is back at kicker and could handle punting duties as well.
NORTH GWINNETT'S 2018 SCHEDULE
8/18 Brookwood (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
9/01 vs. Wekiva, FL (Milton)
9/28 @Mountain View
10/05 Mill Creek
10/12 @Collins Hill
10/26 @Peachtree Ridge
In Philip Jones' third year at the helm of Brookwood, the Broncos won 11 straight games after starting 0-2, won Region 7-AAAAAAA and reached the semifinals for the eighth time in school history. But after the 31-14 loss to Colquitt County (a team they defeated earlier in the season) that kept them out of the state title game, the Broncos had to face the reality of losing 20 starters and 19 signed players from a tight-knit senior class.
"We had a talented group but also a really connected group," Jones said. "Sometimes when you have a lot of talent, they kind of play for themselves as opposed to each other. ... Even though [our players] were talented, they weren't selfish. They played for each other."
It will be a new-look offense without two of the top weapons in the state last season and a quarterback who broke the school's all-time passing record.
Three-year QB starter Angelo DiSpigna, headed to Mercer to play baseball, gives way to a position battle featuring two seniors and two sophomores. Seniors Griffin Jamison and Conner Chavis and sophomores Caleb Ellard and Jack Spyke are all in the mix.
"They're all talented kids," Jones said. "The older ones have a little more experience and know the offense a littler better. Both those young ones are 6-3, 6-4 with big arms and have a lot of potential, but they're both behind the curve a little bit in terms of knowledge of the offense."
Jones likes the potential of the offensive line, which will be anchored by the only returning starter on that side of the ball, senior center Aidan Perkins. Joining him will be likely starters Sean Hill (Jr., LT), Mike Bell (Sr., RG) and Chase Hall (Sr., RT). A couple of players are in the mix at left guard.
Running behind them will be senior running back Chris Carter and junior Eli Kohl. The two are fast and elusive and should see about the same number of carries. They don't have much in the way of returning numbers while playing behind Dante Black, who is headed to UConn after scoring 36 touchdowns as a senior, but Jones says the backfield is in good hands.
"Those young ones didn't get a lot of carries last year. We knew they were talented and ready, but they've just kind of been waiting their turn. We're excited about both of them coming back."
Matthew Hill will be another big loss at wide receiver. The incoming Auburn freshman caught passes and factored in the running game in order to use his game-breaking athleticism. Now, there is a host of receivers vying for playing time. T.J. Ellis on the outside has the most experience in a Brookwood uniform, and Mekal Fuller, who was one of the top receivers at Lanier last season, will feature on the inside. Jayden Williams, Omajuwa Etiwe, Bobby Ezzard, Zac Dyer and Lorenzo Britt will all compete for snaps.
On defense, the only other returning starter on the team is senior cornerback Michael Killebrew, a tough defender with good technique. Joining him at corner is senior Sterling Ross, who logged some snaps last season. Senior Mountain View transfer Dennarrio Stewart is in line to start at strong safety, and senior Zion Pullins will start at free safety. Several of the aforementioned receivers will have a chance to contribute in the secondary as well.
The Broncos employ a 3-4 scheme, and there will be a lot of competition across the front seven. On the defensive line, senior Nick Perez was the primary sub last season and is ready for more snaps at DE. Steven Relea will also factor in on the outside, and Jake Winskie, one of the linemen in the mix for the left guard spot, could also see a primary role at end. At nose guard, juniors Joel Seton and Rhasaan Kimbrough will split snaps. The starting right tackle, Hall, will provide depth on the line.
At linebacker, Cameron Randolph and Tyler Knight are pushing each other for snaps at the SAM position, while Anthony Gorney and Antonio Ward have distinguished themselves thus far at MIKE and WILL, respectively. Ethan Quarshie is in line to start at the Bandit position.
As for specialists, long snapper Parker Hilliard returns as starter. Punter Hunter Hall will look to lock down the starter's job, but at kicker, the Broncos have a handful of names competing for the spot. Return duties are up for grabs as well.
Though the spring ended with a 31-7 loss to powerhouse Hoover of Alabama on May 19, Jones is hopeful that a full offseason and non-region schedule will prepare his Broncos to reach their potential by the end of the 2018 season.
"We want to go win every game, of course, so we'll prepare with the mindset that we want to win every game," Jones said. "But our goal even more so than that is to grow through the process and get better and to learn more about ourselves, especially in those early games."
BROOKWOOD'S 2018 SCHEDULE
8/18 @North Gwinnett (Mercedes-Benz Stadium)
8/24 Peachtree Ridge
8/31 @South Gwinnett
9/07 @Collins Hill
10/12 @Central Gwinnett
11/02 Lakeside, DeKalb