OAKWOOD – Seven area teams gathered at Johnson High on Thursday for what Jason Lester described as “a little bit about football, and a lot about something else.”
Lester, the area director for Gainesville/Hall County Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was letting the players in attendance know that the fourth annual FCA passing camp was more than evaluating talent and working on the playbook.
“It’s a chance to compete and focus on spiritual things,” Lumpkin County coach Tommy Jones said. “We’re all fortunate to be able to attend this event.”
The Indians were one of six Region 8-AAA teams, with Gainesville, North Hall, Chestatee, White County and Johnson also in attendance. Banks County was the lone Class AA school, which is one of the reasons coach Blair Armstrong decided to attend.
“There’s good caliber football here, which will help us once we get to the regular season,” he said.
Judging your team’s performance against other teams is one of the main focuses in an event like this, but local coaches were also there to see how their players perform and what positions they can play once the regular season begins.
Below is a summation for each of the seven teams in attendance and include who is playing well so far during offseason workouts, how certain players are responding to coming back from injury, and how the new region alignment will impact this season.
GAINESVILLE: No team enters the 2010 season with more unknowns than the defending Class AAA runner-ups.
Gone are QB Blake Sims, WR Tai-ler Jones, LB Thomas Sprague, RB Teryan Rucker and S Daunte Carr, just to name a few. The Red Elephants are also missing experience on the offensive line, which graduated after playing four years together.
“Those guys are coming along,” said defensive coordinator Jim Pavao, who filled in for head coach Bruce Miller, who was at a speaking engagement. “You can’t really figure out the O-line until you get the pads on.”
Those without pads received plenty of reps Wednesday and appeared as if they were getting the hang of the offense.
Senior Mike Norman, junior Stephen Mason and freshman Deshaun Watson all took snaps at quarterback and each led their team to a touchdown in the first contest against Banks County.
“The kids are working hard,” Pavao said. “It’s a slow process of getting familiar with the offense and making plays.”
Norman, Mason and Watson also took snaps at receiver, and along with running back Markece Robertson and quarterback turned receiver Trey Harrison, have proven the offense has the possibility of being what it was in 2009.
“They want to get right back in the hunt,” Pavao said. “But we can’t worry about Game 15 if you can’t get through the regular season.
Pavao also complimented the offseason of defensive players A.J. Johnson, Fred Payne, Toddrick Stringer, Joseph Haley and Kevin Hall, who moved from defensive end to inside linebacker.
NORTH HALL: Not normally known as a passing team, a few players on the Trojans have coach Bob Christmas saying, “North Hall may throw the football more than you think.”
The catalyst for that thinking is 6-foot-4 quarterback Kanlor Coker, who has two reliable targets in C.J. and Darius Curry.
“We’re just here to work on timing,” Christmas said. “It’s good to see how we do against people other than ourselves.”
Although the format of the event prevented the Trojans from working on their Wing-T offense, Christmas said the stable of running backs are proving more than capable of having solid years.
At the forefront of that running back corps is Imani Cross, who was in attendance but unable to participate because he tore his Achilles tendon earlier this year. Cross, who wasn’t on crutches and didn’t walk with a limp, impressed his coach after a few workouts.
So too have Amin Ariz, Mack Van Gorder, Randy Olsen and Shane Doster, with the latter two “really impressing” Christmas.
With the Georgia High School Association’s designated dead week starting Sunday, Christmas was missing half his starters because they started vacation early.
“This is a good opportunity for kids we’re going to have to rely on as backups,” Christmas said. “We’ll experiment and put kids in different positions.”
Aside from seeing what the younger players can do, Christmas said the focus was on “trying to correct yourselves,” and that the passing camp is “as much about defense as it is offense.”
North Hall reached the second round of the Class AAA playoffs last year and finished with 9-3.
CHESTATEE: Like the Trojans, the offense of the War Eagles is centered on the running game, but senior quarterback Scott Chewning may force coach Stan Luttrell to throw the ball some more.
Chewning broke his collarbone last season against White County, but has rebounded nicely, and according to Luttrell, is “as strong as ever.”
Chewning’s arm was tested Thursday by throwing to an array of targets that included Alex Moore, Pearce Grunenfelder and Brice Beck.
“We’re trying to throw the ball well and more efficiently,” Luttrell said.
As it is with every other team, the War Eagles success in the passing game could provide more opportunities for the rushing attack, which will be missing the school’s all-time leading rusher, Ben Souther.
“We’re talented at running back, but we’re just young,” said Luttrell, who pointed at Montrae Tate, Kelly Arthur, Owen Clark and Jay Lilles as worthy starters. “We’re excited to see how they grow up.”
This is the fourth year Chestatee has attended the FCA passing camp, and Luttrell said it occurs at the perfect time.
“This wraps up work before dead week and it’s a good thing to culminate our summer program,” he said. “There are a lot of teams from our region here, so the competition is good.
“I’m always excited to get all the work with the football we can get.”
The passing camp might not provide much insight into what teams will do during the regular season, but it does give coaches a chance to see the talent level.
“You get to see the kids,” Luttrell said. “You get to see the type of kids the other teams have and who’s the big star coming back.”
JOHNSON: Boasting a roster filled with young players, Paul Friel used Thursday’s passing camp as a time to evaluate talent.
“It’s a great opportunity to see where we are,” Friel said. “We have a young team so we can test guys against some great opponents and they’ll get a ton of reps.”
With the graduation of do-it-all quarterback Anthony Prophet, the focus of the Knights has to be the player taking the snaps.
Friel said that Luke Gilliam has “stepped up” and filled the void left by Prophet, who accounted for more than 1,200 yards of offense and 11 touchdowns in 2009.
“We’re doing good as far as making progress,” Friel said. “We had to replace a lot of skill guys and we’re getting there.”
Friel, who said his team is a “great group of kids as far as work ethic,” also used Thursday’s event to see how his team matches up with some of the region’s best offenses and defenses.
“It’s really about looking at how we do and how we’ll perform,” Friel said.
LUMPKIN COUNTY: Playing in a region he called “extremely tough,” Jones is happy to have Taylor Guthrie returning at quarterback.
Guthrie, whose 141-yard, one-touchdown performance against White County was his best of the season, anchors an offense that showed plenty of diversity Thursday.
“We’re taking a look at everything the players do,” Jones said. “They’re going to get plenty of reps against teams with all different looks we’ll have to prepare for during the season.”
“I could list a lot of kids that are good, solid players that we’re happy to have in our program,” Jones said. “There isn’t going to be an off week with this region, and we’re going to have to play really good football to make it all 10 games.”
WHITE COUNTY: The Warriors have plenty of experience returning on offense with quarterback Cole Segraves, running back Ashely Lowery and wide receiver Cam Segraves, but coach Greg Segraves still thinks there’s room for improvement.
“We just want to get a little better throwing as a team,” he said. “I feel good about how things have gone this offseason and I think we have a lot of weapons on offense.”
The Warriors finished over .500 for the third straight season last year, but despite going 7-3, they still missed the playoffs.
Things won’t get any easier this year, as White County is joined in the north subregion by North Hall, Stephens County, Franklin County, Chestatee and Lumpkin County.
“I’m excited,” Segraves said about the realignment. “It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s going to be a fun season.”
BANKS COUNTY: Two of the Leopards best offensive players, running back Dylan Lackey and center Nathan Mathis, have fully recovered from last year’s knee injuries and are ready to help the team bounce back after a 2-8 campaign last year.
“I’m anxious to have them back,” Armstrong said. “We’re playing in a region with teams that we’ve played for years and years, and there’s going to be some good competition this year.”
Armstrong also complimented the offseason performances of WR Marqaze Maddox and middle linebacker Matthew Patton, who along with defensive end Eli Autry will anchor Banks County’s defense.