2023 season preview: LaGrange is ready to make a deep playoff run
Published 9:30 am Wednesday, August 16, 2023
LaGrange will be going through a bit of a transition this season as 13 players from last year’s team left to play college football, but expectations around the program are still high.
“The guys are excited and the guys know that we have a chance to have a special group this year,” LaGrange coach Matt Napier said. “Our guys know how tough this season is going to be, and they have been focused in.”
LaGrange has been rejuvenated and revitalized under Napier, who is now going into his fourth year in charge. After winning just two games in the season before Napier’s arrival, the program enjoyed a quick turnaround winning eight and nine games in his first two years in charge. The Grangers made the second round of the AAAA state playoffs in both seasons. The Grangers once again won eight games a season ago but failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time under Napier, leaving a bad taste in the team’s mouth.
It was still a highly successful season for LaGrange as the team beat rivals Troup for the first time since 2015 in a thrilling 38-34 victory that saw the Grangers clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. A one-point overtime loss to Starr’s Mill earlier in the season meant that the Grangers narrowly missed out on a region title, which would have been their first since 2006.
“We are one play away from being region champs as Starr’s Mill scored a two-point conversion in overtime against us,” Napier said. “The kids know how close we were and how tough each game was last season.”
LaGrange will be playing in one of the top regions in the state again this year as five quality teams — Starr’s Mill, Trinity Christian, Troup and Whitewater — will battle it out for four playoff spots.
“Everybody found out last year that there are a lot of good teams with well-coached talented players in this region,” Napier said. “One really good team is not going to make the playoffs in this region.”
The Grangers will also be taking on an even tougher non-region schedule this year as the team will be truly battle tested come the end of the season.
“This year’s schedule is even more difficult,” Napier said. “We are at Carver-Atlanta in our first game and they are top five in the state of Georgia.”
This will be the third straight year with a different starting quarterback for the Grangers. Jaylan Brown, who threw for 1,612 yards while running 352 yards with 27 combined touchdowns, has graduated. In steps Malik Kemp, a senior transfer from Carrollton High School.
“Malik is a very cerebral guy,” Napier said. “He is up here early and stays late. He really dives into the film and is a really competitive guy.”
Kemp brings a lot of the same intangibles that Brown brought. He is a dual-threat quarterback.
Senior Tremez Sellers will provide depth at the quarterback position.
Leading rusher Aj Tucker, who had 93 carries for 792 and nine touchdowns, has graduated so LaGrange will have to look elsewhere for help in the backfield.
Second leading rusher Malachi Fannin-Render, a junior, will be out for a considerable period of this season if not for the full season. He is a special player and finished last season averaging over 166 yards per game and his absence will be notable.
“He us an elite player, an all-state type player,” Napier said. “It really hurts our team to lose him.”
A considerable amount of pressure to shoulder the load will go on junior Jonathan Keys.
“Jonathan is the guy with the most experience, and he really knows the system,” Napier said. “He is a tough kid and has carried the ball for us in some big time games.”
Keys finished last season with 45 carries for 305 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore Caydin Thomas and senior Gavin Barlow will also take on bigger roles in the running game this season. Thomas finished with 51 yards a season ago while Barlow is looking for his first real varsity action, which could be in store for him very soon.
“Caydin has played really well in the spring and Gavin is the fastest guy in our area code,” Naper said. “He has won the country track meet and is extremely explosive and extremely fast.”
The amount of reps each receives will likely depend on the matchup as Napier looks to ride the hot hand.
LaGrange will have to replace its top two wide receivers from last year’s team. Magic Johnson, all-region first team in 2022, and Jaylon Jordan, all-region second team in 2022, both graduated and will be hard to replace as they combined for 46 catches, 1,175 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns a season ago.
Sophomore Jardon Stringer has been turning heads in the spring. He already has college offers from LSU, Penn State and Tennessee among others despite playing sparingly as a freshman.
“He is a young player and he definitely has room to develop, but he has the 10.9 speed in the 100 (yard dash) and 5’2 180 lb frame,” Napier said. “He is still working to be the best football player he can be, but he has a tremendous work ethic.
“He has the intangibles you are looking at from a developmental perspective.”
Senior Steven Hill is the leading returning wide receiver as he finished last season with eight catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. He will see his playing time increase this year.
“Steven played a fair amount last year and has really stepped in and done a good job for us so far this offseason,” Napier said. “He runs really crisp routes and is a really good blocker for us.”
Denoryan Reid was a standout cornerback for the Grangers a season ago and will see more playing time on offense this season. Junior Gryson Cockrell and seniors Nazir Garrett and Tayshon Lemon will provide depth at the wide receiver position. Reid finished last season with four catches for 69 yards while Lemon registered one catch for 52 yards while Cockrell missed last season with a shoulder injury.
Parker Shattuck will be back as one of the team’s starting tight ends. The two-way player finished last year with five catches for 72 yards while also being a pivotal figure in opening holes in the running game.
The Grangers will replace J’Arthur Dunn, who finished last season with six catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns, with Carrollton High transfer Malachi Kemp. Kemp is a big physical tight end that will play both sides of the ball as well.
“Malachi just got his first Division I offer and Parker is committed to South Alabama, so we have a couple of guys that can catch the football really well while also being able to block really well,” Napier said. “Both of them are true tight ends that can stand up in the slot and beat man coverage but also put their hand in the dirt and down block.”
This will be the most complete offensive line the Grangers have had since Napier took over.
“We are excited about this group,” Napier said. “We have a bunch of guys with high football IQs, and we are excited to see what they will be able to do in the trenches this season.”
Senior Jycel Mosley is coming off back-to-back all-state appearances and is a real leader up front for the Grangers. Mosley has multiple Division I offers on the table.
“He has that edge and that finish in him,” Napier said. “He can play tackle, center, or guard. He can really play any position along the offensive line.”
KT Owens will be a four-year starter at center and is a real leader for the team.
Senior Jaden Ligon will be starting for just his second season but has had a meteoric rise over the last 12 months and is now committed to playing college football at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Ligon will lock down the starting left tackle spot.
Junior Clanton Reisenger has stepped up in the offseason and earned a spot as a starting guard. Carson Shattuck, a sophomore, has also stepped up over the last few months and could earn a spot as the other starting guard.
Kelijah Parks started at guard last season but has transitioned into a new role as the team’s starting h-back.
Seniors Desean Salter and Josh Darden will provide depth along the offensive line.
Parker Shattuck had a monster season at defensive end last year for the Grangers and will play at South Alabama after he graduates. He earned all-region honors last season and will look to put together an elite final season in blue and white.
“He is an elite player that makes big plays in big games,” Napier said.
Sophomore Noah Outland is a “handful” and could see himself slot in as one of the team’s starting defensive tackles.
“We call him a problem all the time because he is hard to block and he is just relentless,” Napier said.
Yashawn Butler, a senior, will start at defensive end.
“He power cleaned 340 lbs and broke the school record during our iron man competition,” Napier said. “He is also fast and athletic. He is just an elite athlete.”
Bryceton Huzzie will be in the equation as well as Kelijah Parks as well as junior Spencer Stroud and senior Kaden Kinney.
“We are going to roll in two sets of defensive lines,” Napier said. “We have tremendous depth at those positions.”
Malachi Kemp will get the start at the other defensive end spot opposite Shattuck. Kemp recently received an offer from University of Tennessee-Martin and is looking to make his first season as a Granger a successful one.
“He’s physical against the run, but he can also go out there and get after the quarterback,” Napier said.
JT Burks will return as the team’s starting strongside linebacker. A real leader for the team, his return is crucial for the Grangers defense.
“Our stalwart on defense is JT Burks,” Napier said. “He is our leader on defense and calls the plays, and he has really turned it up. He has been elite this summer.”
Burks was second team all-region a season ago.
JD McCutcheon will be the team’s other starting linebacker. Both players are set to be seniors and have monumental impacts on this year’s team.
“He started some as a freshman before coming on as a sophomore,” Napier said. “He is a special player for us.”
Senior Carter Lay will provide depth at the middle linebacker spots.
Juniors Harris Grace and Kayden Sutton senior Braden Karcher will rotate into the two outside linebacker spots.
“All three guys have started games for us in that position and played in big time games,” Napier said.
Denorayon Reid was the star man in the secondary for the Grangers last season. He led the team in interceptions last year as just a sophomore and looks to take another step forward as a junior.
“He is just one of those dynamic players,” Napier said. “He will play at defensive back, he will play at wide receiver and he will be a returner for us in special teams.
He can play wildcat quarterback for us too, he’s that kind of player.”
Senior Nazir Garrett has had a big offseason and could be in line for the starting cornerback spot opposite Reid. Jardon Stringer will provide depth at the cornerback position.
JJ Johnson, a senior, played cornerback and safety last season and could see time at both positions again this year. Gryson Cockrell missed all of last season with a shoulder injury but has been running with the first team as free safety during the summer. Tayson Lemon will also provide some cover at the safety position.
“We have some guys with some experience as well as some new guys in the secondary,” Napier said. “We are excited to see what some of these guys can do.”
The Grangers will have to replace Christian Ceja, who departed to kick field goals at Point University. In steps Samuel Rodas, a sophomore.
“He has done really well in the spring,” Napier said. “He is a young player, and he continues to improve.”
Ceja will not be easy to replace as he earned a spot on the all-region second team.
Parker Shattuck will be a four-year starter as the punter. Josh Darden and Kayden Sutton are battling it out for the starting long snapper role.