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Signing day: 11 Red Elephants sign letters of intent
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Gainesville senior A.J. Johnson is officially a Tennessee Volunteer.

The 6-foot-3, 230 pound linebacker signed a national letter of intent Wednesday, joining 10 other Red Elephants who did the same.

Johnson, The Times' Football Player of the Year and Class AAA's Defensive Player of the Year, has been a mainstay on Gainesville's defense since his midway through his freshman year and finished his senior year with an area-leading 173 tackles, including 10 for a loss. He'll be joined at Tennessee by teammate Kendrick Millsap, who received a preferred walk-on position from the Volunteers.

Although nine other Red Elephants signed letters of intent Wednesday, only Thomas Niles will be playing Division I football next season. Niles, a defensive lineman who had 73 tackles and three sacks last season, signed with Central Florida.

Other Gainesville players to sign national letters of intent were: Tim Rucker, Mike Norman and Tyrone Hendrix (Mars Hill); Mantevius Rucker (Valdosta State); Kevin Hall, Antwan Thomas and Markece Robertson (Faulkner); and Rashad Lawrence (Chattahoochee Tech - junior college).

West Hall High had one athlete sign a letter of intent Wednesday in senior Shunquez Stephens, who will play at Alabama State University next season. Stephens, who chose Alabama State over playing basketball at South Carolina-Upstate, had an injury-plagued senior season and finished the year with 961 yards passing with 11 touchdowns and 223 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The disappointing end to his high school career overshadowed two straight stellar seasons when he had a combined 4,987 passing yards and 48 touchdowns.

North Hall's D.J. Miolen was the lone Trojan to sign a letter of intent Wednesday, signing a scholarship to play at Air Force.

Five Flowery Branch Falcons signed national letters of intent on Wednesday, led by Division-I signees Austin Brown and Will Monday.

Brown, a quarterback, signed with the University of Alabama-Birmingham after guiding Flowery Branch to a 10-2 record this fall. During his senior season with the Falcons, Brown was a first-team selection on The Times All-Area squad and an All-State honorable mention. He threw 2,588 yards with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions while completing 64 percent of his passes.

Monday, regarded as one of the nation's best punters, signed with Duke. He finished the season with a 41.2-yard average and landed half of his 40 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He was a first-team All-Area and All-State selection.

Three members of the Falcons offensive line also earned scholarships; Chris Rhodes signed with Valdosta State, while Brandon Keller and Deron Lear both inked with Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati. Rhodes was a second-team All-Area selection, while Keller took a first-team nod.

Nick Drury of Lakeview Academy signed with Davidson on Wednesday.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound running back led the Lions to their best season in the program's three-year history this fall with 930 rushing yards (6.7 yards average) and 14 touchdowns in just eight games. He was a second-team selection on The Times' All-Area team.

White County's Ashely Lowery, who led the Warriors to the second round of the Class AAA state playoffs this fall, is officially a Kentucky Wildcat.

Lowery, who starred at safety and running back for White County, committed to Kentucky in August over offers from Illinois and Air Force. During his senior season, Lowery was named the Region 8-AAA Offensive Player of the Year, as well as earning first-team honors on All-State and The Times All-Area team.

He tallied nearly 1,600 yards of offense and had 112 tackles with two interceptions. He's expected to play defensive back for the Wildcats.

East Hall football players Sterling Bailey and Chaz Cheeks made good on their long-standing verbal commitments Wednesday morning, signing national letters of intent with Georgia and Georgia Tech, respectively.

 A total of about 25 area players are expected to accept scholarship invitations.

Bailey, one of the state's most highly rated defensive prospects, committed to the Bulldogs in May and never wavered. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end was a two-time first-team member of The Times All-Area team. He finished his senior season with 64 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and five sacks. Among his other accolades, Bailey was the first Hall County player chosen to play in the U.S. Army All-American game in San Antonio. He had more than 20 Division-I scholarship offers.

Cheeks (6-4, 227) played both defensive end and linebacker for East Hall in his last two seasons. He finished this season with 40 tackles and four sacks and was selected to the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association All-Star game. He chose Georgia Tech in March over offers from North Carolina State and Ole Miss.

While the Vikings duo took care of business earlier than most Wednesday morning, they're not the first from the class of 2011 to align themselves with a college program.

Dawson County's Zach Johnson, an offensive lineman, finished his graduation requirements in December and enrolled at Troy University in January. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder was a first-team member of The Times All-Area team, a three-year starter for the Tigers, and accepted an offer to join the Trojans over offers from Wofford and Western Carolina.

This story will be updated as more signings become official. Check back throughout the day for updates and photos.

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