High-school football getting closer
By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY
We’re a long way from returning to normal (whatever that’ll mean in the future), but there is some light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.
Last week, the Georgia High School Association announced that sports teams in the state will be able to start getting together again starting on June 8.
There will be, as you’d imagine, all sorts of restrictions on what teams will be able to do.
Most notably, players won’t be able to use a ball during workouts, and since social-distancing will be required, that will greatly impact what football teams are able to do.
Still, the fact that sports is returning in some capacity is encouraging news, and hopefully that means we’ll have games to watch when the spring sports seasons roll around in August.
Does that mean there will be thousands of fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder at Callaway Stadium this fall?
We’ve learned over the past few months how quickly things can change, and what the sports landscape will look like in August is a mystery.
I’m going to take an optimistic view of things, though, and believe that high-school football will not only be played this fall, but that game nights at Callaway Stadium will look much like they did a year ago (fingers crossed).
I can’t stress enough how much I’m looking forward to being down there on the sidelines, watching a football game, and feeling some normalcy after these bizarre past few months.
With that in mind (and I’ve always contended that it’s never too early to start talking about high-school football), here are a few football tidbits I hope helps whet your appetite for a season that’s getting closer.
RUNNING STRONG: There are plenty of reasons why the Callaway Cavaliers have become an elite program that competes for state titles year after year.
It obviously begins with the leadership shown by head coach Pete Wiggins, who has directed the program since 2005.
The Cavaliers’ ability to put up massive rushing numbers year after year is another reason why they have been so consistently successful.
Over the past decade, Callaway has rarely had a season where it didn’t have one of the state’s most productive running backs.
Most recently, Cartavious “Tank” Bigsby took the state by storm, and this fall he’ll be carrying the rock for the Auburn Tigers.
Before Bigsby, D.J. Atkins, Cedric Maynard and Eddie Culpepper were among the men who put up monster numbers, and there have been plenty of talented complementary backs as well, including Qua Hines and Charlie Dixon.
One eye-opening statistic jumps out.
During a four-year stretch starting in 2015, three different Callaway running backs had a 2,000-yard season.
Having a running back reach that milestone is rare enough, but to have three different men accomplish that feat during such a short span is astonishing.
It began in 2015 when Cedric Maynard, spurred by 300-yard performances against Troup and Rockmart, finished with more than 2,000 yards and was one of the state’s rushing leaders.
If Callaway’s opponents were hoping for a drop-off in 2016, they were disappointed.
The explosive D.J. Atkins delivered a 2,000-yard rushing season of his own in helping Callaway reach the state semifinals in 2016.
Callaway didn’t have a 2,000-yard rusher in 2017, but that was mainly because Atkins and Bigsby split the carries and had close to 3,000 yards between the two of them.
In 2018, Bigsby became the featured back for the first time, and what a memorable season he had, averaging more than 10 yards per carry while running for 2,221 yards. Bigsby was named the Class AA offensive player of the year while leading Callaway to yet another state-semifinal appearance.
Bigsby missed time with injuries last season and didn’t reach 2,000 yards, but when he was on the field he was unstoppable.
Beginning with Eddie Culpepper in 2014, Callaway has had an all-state running back for six consecutive years.
That’s a testament to the ability of the running backs, and also to the performance of the offensive lines that have consistently opened up holes over the years.
Looking ahead to the 2020 season, Charlie Dixon appears poised to be the next Callaway running-back great.
Dixon produced when called upon last season, and this fall he will be the number one option in the running game.
Look out defenses.
NEW LEADERSHIP: Matt Napier has been a fixture at football games in Troup County for 15 years as the offensive coordinator at Callaway High.
This season, Napier will be in his familiar spot on the sidelines at Callaway Stadium, but he’ll not only be wearing the colors of a different school, but he’ll be calling the shots as a head coach for the first time.
Napier has taken over the head-coaching position at LaGrange High, and his quest is to help a program that has struggled of late get things turned around.
Napier will be LaGrange’s fourth head coach since Steve Pardue stepped down following the 2009 season.
The Grangers haven’t had a winning record since 2009, and they’ve only won one playoff game over the past 11 years.
Napier comes from a Callaway program that, conversely, has been winning big for more than a decade and has made four appearances in the state semifinals since 2013.
Napier’s goal is to help LaGrange find success again, and he said in January after accepting the job there won’t be any shortcuts.
“Just like where I’m coming from, it’s going to be built brick by brick, one agility drill, one set of power cleans at a time,” Napier said. “I’ll take a positive attitude, and a buy-in from the kids and the coaching staff. It takes a lot to be good, and I’m excited about getting that journey, getting that process started. I’m looking forward to impacting these young men, and them impacting me.”
Unfortunately for Napier, his ability to coach the players has been curtailed because of the coronavirus, but he’ll be able to resume face-to-face work with the players in a few weeks.
The Grangers have a preseason game on Aug. 7, and they’ll make their regular-season debut on Aug. 21 against Upson-Lee.
With Napier leading the way, the Grangers are hoping to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since 2015.
QUARTERBACK SUCCESS: The Troup Tigers are coming off one of the most successful four-year stretches in the history of the program.
The Tigers have put together four consecutive winning seasons, and that includes 2018 when they won a school-record 12 games and reached the Class AAAA semifinals.
Since the start of the 2016 season the Tigers have won 35 games, and they won playoff games in 2017 and 2018.
That run comes on the heels of a one-win season in 2015 when the Tigers needed a win in their final game to avoid going 0-10.
As is the case with any successful program, there are plenty of factors that play a part in the success, and at Troup it starts with the steady leadership shown by head coach Tanner Glisson.
It also helps that Troup has had exceptional quarterback play over the past four years, beginning with Montez Crowe and transitioning to Kobe Hudson the past two years.
Crowe helped lead the memorable turnaround in 2016 when the Tigers, one year removed from going 1-9, won eight games and hosted a game in the state playoffs.
Crowe could run when called upon, but he was primarily a drop-back passer, and he picked defenses apart with his accuracy.
Crowe’s senior season was spectacular.
He was among the state’s leaders in passing yardage, and he had a memorable game against Sandy Creek when he threw for more than 500 yards with eight touchdowns.
Crowe helped the Tigers win nine games in 2017 and reach the second round of the state playoffs, and he was deservedly selected as an all-state player.
Kobe Hudson, one of Crowe’s favorite targets as a wide receiver in 2016 and 2017, was handed the keys to the offense in 2018, and all he did was put together one of the best individual seasons a quarterback in Georgia has ever had.
Hudson threw for 3,386 yards with 32 touchdowns, and he also ran for more than 1,400 yards with 18 touchdowns while leading Troup to a 12-2 record and a spot in the state semifinals.
Hudson had another big senior season as Troup returned to the state playoffs for a fourth straight year before losing to eventual state-champion Blessed Trinity.
Paul Brewer was Troup’s quarterbacks coach from 2015 to 2018, and he took over as offensive coordinator last year.
While Crowe and Hudson are different players, Brewer said both of them had all the attributes needed to be a successful quarterback.
“Number one, they’ve got to lead the team,” Brewer said. “If something bad happens, nobody’s coming to rescue them on Friday night, so they’ve got to be willing to lead. And when it’s over with, they have to be willing to learn, and go back and make adjustments quick. That’s the thing both of them have in common is they’re both extremely smart. They can both comprehend.”
As for who’ll be taking the snaps this season, that remains to be seen.
Hudson is at Auburn University, and backup Nick Schweizer has graduated as well.
Troup has some gifted freshmen who will be pushing for playing time, and some players who have been in the program will be in the mix as well.
The Tigers will have the summer, preseason practice, and two scrimmage games to figure out who the man at quarterback.