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Also hear John McClellan’s preseason predictions here: Below please find John McClellan’s first high school football column of the 2019 season. John also joined us recently at Brand Red Studios for an audio interview on the coming season. You can listen by clicking the arrow above and to the left, or click here.
Plus: The 2019 high school football schedule, team by team. Schedule
By John McClellan
For Hometown Headlines
The month of August means high school football as the teams in Northwest Georgia prepare to kick off the 2019 season. The new year is highlighted by four coaching changes, including two at perennial powers, as well as rule changes and the usual uncertainty about who will be in the playoffs by season’s end. The start of the regular season is less than a week away for Unity Christian School, while most schools get under way Aug. 22 and 23 and a few don’t start play until Aug. 30.
The biggest news of the postseason came in Calhoun, where Hal Lamb retired after a 22-year head coaching career, including the last 20 as the man in charge for the Yellow Jackets. Lamb’s teams have won 233 games and lost 37 games at Calhoun with his only losing record coming in his first season in 1998. Calhoun won three state titles and 18 straight region championships under Lamb’s leadership and its last loss in a region game came in 2001. Longtime assistant Clay Stephenson will succeed Lamb.
The Cartersville Purple Hurricanes also will have a new coach as Joey King resigned after five seasons to take a college assistant coaching job at Coastal Carolina. Cartersville was 67-4 under King with state championships in 2015 and 2016 and a loss in the state title game in 2018. Conor Foster, a longtime Cartersville assistant, will be the new head coach.
Model also will have a new head coach as Jeff Hunnicutt, who most recently was an assistant coach at Cartersville, will be the new head man for the Blue Devils. Hunnicutt, whose dad, Lynn, was head coach at Pepperell, Model, and Fitzgerald, succeeds Ricky Ross. Ross was 2-8 in his only year at the Model helm.
The other local head coaching change came at Gordon Central, where Cory Nix left after two years in the job. T.J. Hamilton, a former star player at Gordon Central who was an assistant coach on Nix’s staff, will be the new Warrior head coach. Nix will be an assistant coach at Villa Rica.
Several other programs in Northwest Georgia are among the 101 schools in the state that also will have new head coaches in 2019. They include Dade County, where Dale Pruitt, the father of Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, replaces Bradley Warren, who resigned after 11 years to return to his former job at McIntosh County Academy; Gilmer, where former Pebblebrook head coach Kevin Saunders takes over from Casey Wingard for a Bobcat team that hasn’t won a game since 2015; Pickens, where Jeff Nelson takes over the reins of a highly successful Dragon program from retiring Chris Parker; and Villa Rica, where former Grayson coach takes over from Rico Zackery, who joined the staff at Kennesaw State.
The 2019 season will see several rules changes that fans will notice. The most obvious will be a change in the play clock. Officials still will use the 25-second clock to start periods and following penalties and play stoppages. However, in most live ball situations, as soon as the ball has been ruled dead, officials will start a 40-second play clock.
A change also has been made to the legal scrimmage formation rule. Only five offensive linemen (instead of seven) must be on the line of scrimmage with no more than four backs. The rules committee’s stated objective is to more easily identify legal and illegal formations.
The Rules Committee expanded the definition of tripping to prohibit a defensive player from tripping the runner. Prior to this season, defensive players could not trip other players but were permitted to trip the runner.
Other rule changes include reducing the penalty for illegally batting or kicking the ball from 15 yard to 10 yards; prohibiting defensive players from grabbing the name plate area of the jersey; and requiring teams to improve the contrast between jersey numbers and the rest of the jersey.
This is the fourth and final season of the current Georgia High School Association reclassification cycle as region alignments remain the same for 2019. Fans can expect traditional powerhouses to remain strong as we head into a new season.
The Rome Wolves, whose state leading winning streak ended in a loss at Warner Robins in the Class 5A semifinals after capturing two straight state championships, once again are the team to beat in Region 7-AAAAA. The Carrollton Trojans, who lost to Stockbridge in the quarterfinals, also are a strong contender for the region crown. Both Kell and East Paulding, who reached the second round of the playoffs, are likely contenders for playoff berths with Hiram the most likely team to break into the top four.
Region 5-AAAA is expected to be one of the most competitive regions in the state in 2019. The Cartersville Purple Hurricanes marched through the season only to lose to a powerful Blessed Trinity game in the state finals. Three teams—the Troup Tigers, who lost to Blessed Trinity in the semifinals; the Cedartown Bulldogs, who ran into a strong St. Pius X team in the opening round of the playoffs, and the Sandy Creek Fighting Patriots, whose season ended in a first round loss to North Oconee, all are serious threats for the region title.
Calhoun enjoyed another deep run into the postseason in 2018 before being eliminated by Peach County 22-7 in the semifinals. Even with the retirement of Hal Lamb and the first time in recent memory Calhoun is without a first team all-state player, nobody is expecting the Yellow Jackets to finish anywhere but first in Region 6-AAA. The region as a whole is stronger than it has been in recent memory. Haralson County, Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, North Murray, and Ringgold—all eliminated in the first round a year ago—are postseason threats in 2019.
The Rockmart Yellow Jackets, who reached the Class 2A finals in 2018 only to lose to a Heard County team they had soundly defeated in the regular season, are the clear favorite in Region 7-AA. The Pepperell Dragons, despite their first-round shutout loss to Douglass, are a strong contender for second place in the region. The rest of the playoff race is wide open with Armuchee, Chattooga, Coosa, Gordon Central and Model all possible contenders.
Region 6-A is wide open in 2019. The Darlington Tigers, who reached the Class A Private School quarterfinals before losing to eventual state champion Eagles Landing Christian Academy, are picked by many as preseason region champions. Other teams expected to contend for the region crown include Mt. Zion, who lost to eventual state champion Clinch County in the Class A Public School quarterfinals, and Fellowship Christian and North Cobb Christian, who both lost in the Class A Private School quarterfinals.
The Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association is now the Georgia Association of Private & Parochial Schools. The 8-man football division has split into two classifications with Unity Christian joining eight other schools in Class AA. The Lions are a strong contender for the title in Region 1-AA, where they will compete with Harvester Christian Academy, Horizon Christian Academy, and Johnson Ferry Christian Academy. (Cherokee Christian School, the fifth team in the region, is playing a non-region schedule.
Finally, Georgia School for the Deaf will not have a football team in 2019. Low participation numbers are the reason the Tigers will not field a team in the sport for the first time since 1938. GSD hopes to resume play in 2020.
Friday: The Oaks School (0-0) at Unity Christian School (7-5)
- Series History: First Meeting
- While the Georgia High School Association will wait another week before beginning regular season play, the UCS Lions are one of several GAPPS teams that officially start the season this Friday. The Oaks School is a second-year school located in Opelika, Alabama who is fielding a football team for the first time in 2019. The Lions had an up and down season in 2018 that included a series of mini tiebreakers to reach the state playoffs that ended with a 44-6 first round loss to eventual GICAA state champion Peachtree Academy. With a rematch with that same Peachtree team looming in Week 2, the Lions are looking for a big start to a new season. Unity Christian wins by more than 30.