published Monday, May 12th, 2014

Area Georgia prep football teams work to adjust

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    Head coach Hal Lamb watches his Calhoun High School team play football during the 2013 season.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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New area Georgia head football coaches are Heritage's E.K. Slaughter, Sonoraville's Jim Kremer, Coahulla Creek's Chad Barger and Chattooga's Charles Hammon.

Some schools in northwest Georgia are not participating in spring drills, electing to take on a second pre-fall scrimmage. The GHSA this year is giving schools the choice of going through spring drills or gaining the extra scrimmage. The schools not practicing are Christian Heritage, Dade County, Gordon Lee, Heritage, LaFayette, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, North Murray and Ringgold.

Here's a look at what the area schools are working on:

CALHOUN

The Yellow Jackets began what coach Hal Lamb termed a very important practice period May 1, and the focus isn't about replacing several skill-position starters. Lamb wants his team to rediscover the value of holding on to the football.

"The No. 1 thing this spring is ball security," said Lamb, whose team uncharacteristically lost in the Class AA quarterfinals last year. "The last two games we've lost were by turning the ball over, so we're opening each practice with a ball-security drill, which includes live tackling."

Calhoun does have some positional needs, including at wide receiver and offensive line, and sophomore Kaelen Riley will go through his first spring session as the No. 1 quarterback. Finding replacements for all-stars Austin Byrd and Chandler Curtis will be a focus defensively.

CHATTOOGA

The Indians and new coach Charles Hammon began drills last Monday, and the veteran coach, in addition to introducing himself to the 80 or so players, is clearly focused on getting the program back to basics.

"We have to get back to running the ball," Hammon said. "We've already been working on our team strength, and now we're going to work hard on blocking and teaching our linemen to get leverage."

Hammon also wants to get the point across to his players that he and his staff are in Summerville to stay.

"The program hasn't been good for a while, but it wasn't that long ago when Coach [John] Starr was winning eight and nine games a year," he said. "We have to establish some stability here, and everyone has to realize it's going to take some time to get back to where we want to be on a yearly basis."

COAHULLA CREEK

The pace will be frenetic for the Colts under new coach Chad Barger, who began practice last Tuesday. The team is using the 10 days of practice to learn a new offense -- a hybrid wing-T -- and defense, a 4-2-5 base.

"We have a lot to teach them, so we're going to find out quickly who wants to get after it," said Barger, the former Sequatchie County coach. "We're going to focus quite a bit on our lines. Offensively, we don't have a lot of size up front, but with our offense it's more important to have good athletes who can gain leverage."

Barger and offensive coordinator Curt Bureau also will work extensively with sophomore quarterback Luke Brock.

DALTON

The Catamounts prepare for their initial season in Class AAAAA in good shape, according to coach Matt Land, who began spring drills this past week with the early focus on freshmen. The varsity, though, will get the bulk of attention, and the key word will be competition.

"We've now built up our numbers to the point where there is competition at every position," Land said. "These guys know by now that every position is open and playing time is up for grabs."

Dalton doesn't lack for star power, with elite tailback Kelvis Rhodes and all-state linebacker Eder Mora entering their senior seasons, but the Cats will enter the 2014 season inexperienced in the trenches.

"The lines are always an area of priority for us in the spring, and we're losing some great players there," Land said. "We may not have many starters back, but we do have several guys who were in the rotation. It's their turn now."

Both of the team's quarterbacks, Jase Chastain and Payton Veraldi, return and likely will enter preseason camp co-No. 1's on the depth chart, though Veraldi is recovering from a broken leg suffered at midseason.

MURRAY COUNTY

Second-year Indians coach Chad Brewer took 82 kids onto the practice field this past week and has one major goal for the period.

"We're hoping to build some depth in our lines and at running back," Brewer said. "We've got a lot of returning guys back, but we need some more depth. Injuries killed us last year, because we didn't have any depth."

A big part of that hoped-for depth lies in a freshman group eager to earn playing time.

"I'm very excited about our numbers, including 30 freshmen who have participated in every practice," Brewer said. "They are very talented and willing to learn, certainly not timid eighth-graders."

Though the Indians went just 1-9 in his first season, Brewer sees a different team this spring after weight training.

"The Monday after our last game, the weight room was filled with guys wanting to improve and get stronger, and it was nothing a coach did," Brewer said. "We're a much stronger football team, and all the credit goes to the kids. There's also some stability here for the first time in a while. We have all our coaches back and our schemes will remain the same, which is a plus for us."

NORTHWEST WHITFIELD

The Bruins headed out last Thursday with several holes to fill, none bigger than the graduation of all-state defensive tackle Isaiah Mack.

"It will take a large group to replace guys like Isaiah Mack," Northwest coach Josh Robinson said. "One good thing is we have two very good linebackers returning and we will lean heavily on those guys."

That pair, Cyrus Addison and Blake Ownbey, will be part of a defense that will use more multiple fronts to take advantage of the linebacking talent. In addition to Mack, eight other line starters will have to be replaced.

"We have to answer questions about who the top two players are at several positions on the lines of scrimmage," Robinson said. "We are going to scrimmage very heavily this spring and let the kids fight it out."

One spot Robinson doesn't have to worry about is at quarterback, where Caleb Shiflett will return to lead the team's spread attack, though the Bruins will have to find replacements for productive wideouts Andy Whisenant and Tevin McDaniel.

RIDGELAND

The Panthers hit the practice field last Monday and coach Mark Mariakis welcomed a very motivated group after winning just three games last season.

"Last year was kind of out of the norm for us, so the guys are hungry," said Mariakis, who has 89 varsity players returning and 47 freshmen. "We've had a super offseason, and a lot of the young kids who got to play last year hit the weight room hard."

Ridgeland started five freshmen a year ago, including quarterback Ivy Boehm, so the team still will be young. As a result, Mariakis is hoping a few strong leaders step forward in the next two weeks.

"The older I get, the more important I realize the role leadership plays," he said. "Our Dome year (state runner-up finish in 2012) is a great example because we had such great leadership. You really realize how important it is when you don't have it."

Mariakis said the Panthers are adding a few wrinkles to the team's wing-T offense and will go back to a 4-4 base defense to take advantage of the strong linebacking corps.

TRION

The Bulldogs hit the practice field last Monday and are, according to coach Justin Brown, focusing on rebuilding the offensive line and finding a quarterback to replace the graduating Cory Bethune.

"We have one starter back on the line, so this spring is real important for us there," said Brown, who will feature running back Malik Martin in the 2014 attack. "We're going to find out quickly who can play."

The quarterback competition involves Jared Whitt, Jackson Bowers and sophomore Tyler Gill, who is back in pads after suffering a scary neck injury last fall. Brown said the team's wing-T offense will be tweaked a bit but that 80 percent of it will remain run-oriented. One positive, the coach believes, is that coaching stability will start to pay off this year in the younger players.

"We've been doing the same stuff now for three years from the middle school on up, and I'm wanting to see some of that start to show up this spring with the young guys," Brown said. "Instead of having to learn what we're doing, they can step right in."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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