A visit to Cardboard City
Two years ago, Banks County High football coach Blair Armstrong left Class AAAAA force Peachtree Ridge for the much smaller and less prestigious Class AA team in Homer for a chance to do something he loved: making bad teams good.
"I look for schools that haven’t won," Armstrong said. "I’ve never been in a program that had a winning season before I got there."
Like he did with Peachtree Ridge, a 1-9 struggling Gwinnett County team that transformed into a state champion in 2006, Armstrong took Banks County to a new level, leading the team to its first winning record and playoff appearance in 11 years.
Now, Armstrong faces a new challenge—doing it again, without the 20 seniors that shaped last year’s lineup.
That task begins this summer, where the Leopards spend Monday-Thursday mornings in the weight room or in the gym doing speed and agility drills.
"I’m very excited about our participation, it’s been incredible this summer," Armstrong said. "I’m averaging about 45 kids a day."
Armstrong says he isn’t worrying about actual plays and strategies on the field just yet. With 13 total starters lost from last year’s playoff team, getting everyone in top physical condition is the priority before putting on the pads in August.
"From what we can tell, knowing the camaraderie on the offense and the defense, we feel we’re going to be important this year," he said.
However, the technicalities of organizing depth charts and assembling a competitive team will eventually be of high importance for Armstrong. While Banks County lost six defensive starters from last year, the biggest hit taken is the offense — especially the running game, where the Leopards must replace over 2,700 rushing yards between two running backs in Armstrong’s Wing-T offense.
The most notable absence at summer workouts is recent graduate Justin Beasley, whose 2,161 rushing yards was third-most among all running backs in Georgia last year. A probable signee with North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina, he left Banks County with over 3,800 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
Fellow running back Demetric Dempson, who rushed for 624 yards last season, also graduated in May.
Despite losing both running backs, Armstrong doesn’t plan to change his offensive scheme this summer. He has used the Wing-T since 1982, and expects to have a trio of new running backs ready to fill the spots Beasley and Dempson left.
"We won’t have a feature back this year, but all three running backs are going to be equally talented," Armstrong said. "The backs we have aren’t as fancy but are really tough, physical runners with good discipline.
"We have some guys in the Wing-T that do a very good job of hiding the football and keep you guessing who has it."
The Leopards are also without a majority of their offensive line, also lost to graduation. But Armstrong says Banks County is physically stronger than it was last year, despite losing linemen with bench presses over 400 pounds.
"We were very strong and very big last year, but as a whole team, we’ll actually be stronger this year," Armstrong said. "We won’t have as many marquee guys, but all of my players are better on average."
At the end of summer workouts, all Banks County players will be individually evaluated to monitor overall improvement in team strength.
"I’m excited to see how much better as a team than we were last season," Armstrong said.
Some of that excitement has come from the college attention received by one of Armstrong’s linebackers. Matthew Patton, a 220-pound junior, has increased his bench press to 380 this summer, and could be a Division-I prospect by his senior year.
"He’s going to be a very big part of our defense," Armstrong said. "He’s a really physical player and he’s going to be one of toughest linebackers in our region."
Banks County opens its regular season August 28 at home against Washington-Wilkes. It opens region play the following Friday at Riverside Military.