The last great image we have of high school football is of Central of Clay County walking off the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium having conquered Vigor in a thrilling 43-42 state championship win, giving first-year head coach Danny Horn a storybook ending in his return to Clay County.
This week will begin the quest of our six local teams as they attempt to end 2019 the same way Central ended 2018.
Spring football scrimmages are upon us, and five of the six local teams will be in action this week in one form or another.
Central will have the unofficial beginning to its title defense Saturday morning at 11 a.m. against Stanhope Elmore as part of a day-long jamboree at Jacksonville State University.
Handley was scheduled to have a spring game Friday at Cherokee County, but that game was canceled on Monday, sending Handley head coach Larry Strain and athletic director Greg Foster scrambling to find an opponent. It took until Wednesday afternoon, but they finally nailed down a game and will play in a three-team jamboree with Notasulga and Central Hayneville at Notasulga Friday.
There were no last-minute cancellations in Wedowee as RCHS, Wadley and Ranburne will convene at Hulond Humphries Stadium Friday for a three-team jamboree starting at 6:30 p.m.
There will be three two-quarter games played among the three varsity teams. RCHS and Wadley will get things started at 6:30, with Wadley and Ranburne to follow and RCHS and Ranburne closing things out.
Woodland was originally scheduled to be a part of the Wedowee jamboree, but the Bobcats opted out earlier this spring due to Jeremy Stanford’s obligations as head softball coach. So Woodland will not have a spring game.
But for everyone else the action starts as soon as Thursday night. Here’s a quick glance at each team what they’ll be focusing in this week’s scrimmages.
Clay Central vs. Stanhope Elmore – 11 a.m. Saturday at Jacksonville State.
The defending 5A state champions take the field for the first time Saturday, and while they have some holes to fill, don’t expect a big drop off in year two of the Danny Horn era at Central.
Biggest question mark: Receivers and outside linebackers. You can chalk up Horn’s concern in this area to the departure of receiver Shamari Simmons, who won MVP honors in the state championship game last year, and linebackers Dewayne and Paul Garrett, who were vital two-way players on last year’s championship team.
Javon Wood is the most experienced returning receiver and a proven commodity at the position, but beyond Wood there are a lot of open spots for pass catchers.
Smallest question mark: Central is set at quarterback and running back with starters Boyd Ogles and Quentin Knight, respectively, returning from a year ago. Knight was the workhorse for the state title team as he rushed for over 1,600 yards and 24 touchdowns. And Ogles locked down the starting quarterback spot after taking over the position mid-season, completing just under 50 percent of his passes for 1,026 yards with eight TD’s and four interceptions. If a couple of receivers emerge this has a chance to be a true dual-threat offense in 2019.
Handley - Intra-squad scrimmage Thursday at 3:30 p.m. at Wright Field
It’s been a slow-building crescendo for Handley since they bottomed out at 2-8 following the 2016 state championship. But the young talent is starting to become not so young, and this year’s team could be Larry Strain’s most complete and talented squad since that magical run three years ago.
Biggest question mark: Quarterback, where Strain is still searching for his first true plug-and-play starter since Rhett Fetner in 2016. With Bootsie Lyons gone to graduation, Evan Cofield is the most experienced returning player at the position. But Tae Snead’s tantalizing athleticism has him in the running to earn the starting spot as well.
Smallest question mark: Defensive line. The Dylan Brooks showcase begins Friday, as the potential future 5-star defensive end will take the field for the first time since he burst onto the recruiting scene over the winter. Brooks continues to compile scholarship offers from some of the best programs in the country, and his junior year should cement his status as one of the most sought-after recruits in America.
Brooks will be the big name, but he’s just one piece of what is developing into a solid defensive front with Jake Cottle at the other defensive end and Ahmad Staples and Brian Joiner looking solid on the interior.
Honorable mention here goes to the backfield of running backs Devontae Houston and Tae Meadows. It that duo can stay healthy they will bring a truly dynamic element to the Handley offense.
RCHS vs. Wadley and Ranburne – 6:30 p.m. Friday
Biggest question mark: The offensive line, where Nick Sims is the only returning starter from a unit that dominated its opposition for most of the past two seasons. There are some holes to fill at linebacker as well after the departure of T.J. Sims and Buck Heard.
Smallest question mark: There’s experience at the skill positions with quarterback Damarcus Davis, receiver Trey McFarland and running back Dante Jordan. Those guys should all continue to produce, if that offensive line holds up.
Also, head coach Pat Prestridge bears mentioning here. He is currently overseeing the longest stretch of sustained success in the history of the school. The team has won 10 or more games in each of the last four seasons, has won a region championship, appeared in a state championship game and can set the school mark for most consecutive playoff appearances this year.
If they reach the postseason it will be their sixth straight season doing so, something that has never happened before at RCHS. Prestridge’s 115-47 career record ties him fourth in county history in total wins with former Wadley and Woodland coach Max Yarbrough (in case you’re wondering, the rest of the list goes 1. Ron Watters - 147 wins; 2. Randy Sparks - 136 wins; and 3. Larry Strain - 130 wins, according to ASHFHS.org) And Prestridge’s .710 winning percentage is the best in the county’s history among coaches with at least 75 games coached.
Ranburne vs. Wadley and RCHS – 6:30 p.m. Friday
Ranburne’s win total has gone up in each of Stephen Bailey’s first three seasons as the head coach, culminating with his 9-win team that lost in the second round of the state playoffs last season.
And based on the players he has returning, that upward trend could continue in 2019. Ranburne lost just six seniors from last year’s team, so the expectations could be the highest they’ve been in Bailey’s tenure, especially if they play well in Friday’s jamboree.
Biggest question mark: Quarterback, where two-year starter Josh Ralston has graduated. Tye Bailey is the most experienced quarterback on the roster as he has played in spot duty in each of the last two seasons.
Smallest question mark: Take your pick. Ranburne is set at running back with last year’s leading rusher Christian Smith, and they return four of five starters on the offensive line. They have a stud at linebacker in Gunner Hollis and plenty of experience throughout the secondary.
Woodland – No game
The student body at Woodland has dwindled, and that trend shows on the football field as just 21 players in grades 9-12 participated in spring practice, according to head coach Jeremy Stanford.
Woodland is completing this realignment cycle as a 2A school with the attendance of a mid-sized 1A and will almost certainly drop down to the state’s smallest classification when the new realignment is announced later this year.
Biggest question mark: Depth. With 21 players Stanford is going to have to rely on some young, untested players, especially in the trenches.
Smallest question mark: The skill positions will be solid with quarterback Brock Edwards, running back Dale Robertson and receiver Briar Morris all returning for their second straight seasons as starters.
Wadley vs. RCHS and Ranburne - 6:30 p.m. Friday in Wedowee
The Shenan Motley era begins Friday, and Wadley will feature a mixture of old and new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. Former head coach Jonathan Farr has decided to stick around as an assistant for Motley, so there’s continuity in that regard. But the longest-tenured coach on the staff, former defensive coordinator Logan Cofield, is stepping away from coaching to take the principal position at Wedowee Elementary.
Biggest question mark: We’ve been talking about player personnel in this section for the other teams, but the real question for Wadley is how they will adjust to Motley, the third coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs.
Smallest question mark: Elijah Beverly. It’s important not to put too much focus on one player, but Beverly is poised to be an anchor on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball for Wadley. His forte is defense, but he’s more than capable of standing his ground on the offensive side as well. Motley will have a lot of mixing and matching to do throughout the lineup as he figures out his new team, but Beverly is such a good football player he’s one that Motley won’t have to spend too much time worrying about.