Habersham Central coach Stuart Cunningham said it’s the Raiders’ goal to return to the playoffs, somewhere they haven’t been since 2007, when they won region and finished 11-2 under coach Gene Cathcart.
To reach the postseason, the Raiders must beat out some stiff competiton in Region 8-AAAA, which includes Class AAAA runner-up Clarke Central, semifinalist Rockdale County, and Flowery Branch, a Class AAA state semifinalist last season.
Making it difficult for the Raiders to compete in the region will be the loss of their quarterback (transferred) and returning just four starters — three on offense and one on defense.
The Raiders are moving to an option offense, and Cunningham said the key to making it work will be hanging on to the ball, a problem for the team recently. The past two seasons, with quarterback Austin Brown behind center, Habersham was more of a throwing team. But with Brown transferring to Flowery Branch, the Raiders will depend more on two seniors, halfback David Griffin and fullback Andre Barrs, in the run game.
Junior Kevin Ellison is expected to take over quarterback duties in place of Brown. Last year as a running back, he gained 576 yards on the ground on 130 carries, adding eight scores.
“With the option, we’re hoping it’s unpredictable,” Cunningham said.
The past five seasons, the Raiders ran more of a pro-style offense, but Cunningham feels if they continued in that scheme, they would be running an offense for players who have graduated.
When the Raiders throw the ball, expect senior receiver/tight end Chasten Howard to be the go-to guy.
The only full-time returning starter for the Raiders is senior outside linebacker Tyler Stinespring, who totaled 68 tackles last year — third-best on the team.
The Raiders will alternate mainly between a 3-4 and 4-4 scheme depending on the situation, and with 10 new starters on defense, Cunningham is satisfied so far with how the new unit has become acclimated.
“We’re playing against ourself (in practices), so I could be a poor judge,” said Cunningham, “but they certainly aren’t playing like there’s just one starter back.”
Josh Welborn is the team’s placekicker, and last year was 4-for-4 in field goal attempts and 18-for-21 in extra point attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler averaged 32.1 yards a punt last season, with a long of 55 yards.
The Raiders’ lofty goal of returning to the state playoffs will be hampered by the absence of its starting quarterback the past three seasons and an inexperienced defense — not to mention a deep and talented region. But if Ellison can be effective in the run game and the defense hold its own, the Raiders could put themselves in a postseason situation.