By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
High school football: Area players strap on pads, helmets for first time with opener around the bend
0802CHESTATEEFB 0001
Chestatee High School football players jump or the ball during a drill at the first padded football practice in Gainesville, on Tuesday.

The first week in August can mean only one thing for the nine Hall county high schools: football is officially back.

That means no more 7-on-7 passing drills, no more dwelling on the mishaps from the previous year — just helmets batting helmets and pads meshing, the way the sport is intended to be played.

The excitement surrounding the first padded practice isn’t near as much as it used to be, but perhaps the 35-percent humidity in Tuesday’s forecast made the transition a little more ideal following a GHSA mandated five-day acclimation period, during which players were restricted from wearing pads the five days prior to Aug. 1.

As for the coaches, it’s still their first real opportunity to assess the talent at hand. East Hall coach Bryan Gray confirmed his players’ excitement to put on the pads despite a decrease in the hype of it all in recent years.

“We’ve kind of lost that (excitement) this year, I think. But I do think there’s a level of excitement because they know now it’s for real,” the coach said. “They’re tired of running around and doing drills and conditioning. Now they’re actually going to do some football stuff. There is some excitement. But the just pure joy of going out there for one hour because I’ve got to cut it short or we’re going to hurt each other because we’re going at it so hard, those days are behind us, unfortunately. The rules have changed, and it is what it is.”

Chestatee coach Shaun Conley noticed a much different vibe from his returning players from last year’s playoff team.

“Today was much better. Our tempo, the speed and the aggressiveness was better than last year because of the fact last year, we were still trying to feel each other out around this time,” said Conley, who enters his second full season with the program.

Here’s some news to follow as opening day is just 16 days away.

THE PROGRESS OF CHESTATEE

The War Eagles (4-7 in 2016) experienced a small progression under Conley in his first season at the helm. They snapped an 18-game losing streak dating back to 2014 and clinched just their fifth playoff appearance in the program’s existence.

Now in Conley’s second season, the War Eagles appear to have the momentum they need to start 2017 on the right foot. But of course, four wins will be nowhere close to meeting the expectations set forth by Conley and his 13 seniors.

“We were pleased (with 4-7), but we weren’t satisfied. And you know, this group of seniors, they kind of made it a goal to continue to improve and build on that,” Conley said. “But yeah, last year winning four games after two years of ... you know, winning one game, yeah, it has created a bit of momentum at Chestatee. Right now Chestatee is a great place to be ...Football-wise and school-wise, there seems to be a little buzz at Chestatee right now.”

CAN WEST HALL KEEP UP THE STREAK?

The Spartans have reached the playoffs for the last four seasons and are coming off a historic 2016 in which they advanced beyond the first round for the first time since 2000.

West Hall coach Tony Lotti now reloads after saying goodbye to the program’s most successful graduating class. The Spartans play a scrimmage at Haralson County on Aug. 11, and they open the season the following week at City Park for the second-annual Marvin Orenstein Kickoff Classic against Gainesville on Aug. 18.

“We’re gonna be young,” said Lotti. “I hate to use the term ‘baptism by fire,’ but that’s what’s getting ready to happen ... right out of the gate with Gainesville. So there you go, welcome to the big leagues.”

GAINESVILLE’S NEXT SIGNAL-CALLER

Longtime Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller has witnessed a slew of top-tier passers light up Bobby Gruhn Field over the years, The most prominent was recent first-round NFL draft pick Deshaun Watson, who led Gainesville to its lone GHSA state title in 2012.

Given the recent departure of quarterback DJ Irons, Miller for the second consecutive year looks to a new face to lead the offense. Junior Tre Luttrell, son of defensive coordinator Stan Luttrell and a recent move-in from Buford High, is the sure starter for the starting position according to Miller. Luttrell also played linebacker for last year’s Class 5A state runner-up Wolves (13-2), during which he recorded 32 total tackles, two sacks and one interception as a sophomore.

Miller so far has seen a mentally sharp athlete who make the plays with his arm and feet.

“(Luttrell) is very coachable and you put all that together, and I think he is one a lot of our players respect,” Miller said. We’re able to do a lot of things mentally with him as a quarterback because he seems to adapt and take to coaching so well.”

NEW FACES UNDER THE HEADSET

Nick Garrett (Riverside Military Academy) and Ben Hall (Flowery Branch) are tasked with turning around two programs that are on a bit of a skid. They have the résumés to prove they’re up for the challenge.

The Eagles, currently in the state’s smallest classification, have not reached the postseason since 2009. The Class 5A Falcons not only missed the playoffs for the last three seasons, they also finished last fall with their first losing mark (3-7) since 2004.

Hall has a track record of not only building a program, but sustaining that success. In his four years at Jefferson, Hall amassed a 44-8 record, guiding the Dragons to at least 10 wins and a second-round playoff appearance each season.

Garrett — who has spent the last 12 years coaching schools in the Division II, NAIA, junior college and high school ranks — hopes to employ a no-huddle, up-tempo scheme at Riverside Military.

THE RETURN OF EAST HALL’S EXPLOSIVE QB-WIDE RECEIVER COMBO

East Hall’s explosive offense once again lived up to its billing with quarterback Austin Parker in the driver’s seat in 2016.

Aside from accumulating more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns (2,726 yards, 27 touchdowns) for the second straight season, Parker managed to do it in less than 10 games for the Vikings to earn The Times’ Player of the Year distinction.

The biggest change in Parker’s third and final season will be the departure of All-Region wideout Markese Jackson, who graduated in 2017. He still welcomes back an equally dangerous downfield threat in Sedrion Morse, who garners Division I prospect status as a senior. Morse reeled in 49 balls for 927 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.

Parker and Morse are slated to be the two biggest pieces of this fine-tuned machine that averaged 34 points last season despite a 3-7 mark.

Regional events