Is it too early to talk about football?
With a weekend of basketball and wrestling cancellations, and with the college football national championship game, NFL playoffs and National Signing Day looming, it seemed apropos to get back in a little bit of a football spirit.
We’ll do that by taking a look – a very early look – at some of the prospective top high school football athletes returning to Newton County for the 2017 season.
Lest you think it premature, the winter workouts have already begun at all three county Georgia High School Association schools, which serves as a reminder that in this era of year-around high school sports, football season really never ends. It just shifts.
And we’ll make the gradual shift into wrapping our minds around what the 2017 season may hold.
Here are some of the top players in our county, not in any particular order, who could be poised for breakout seasons in 2017:
1. QB Myron Middlebrooks, Rising Sr., 6-2, 175 pounds, Newton: Middlebrooks had the arduous and unenviable task of replacing the highly productive Romario Johnson and his 2,600-plus yards of total offense and 31 touchdowns during the 2015 season. And he was admirable in doing so. Through eight games, Middlebrooks completed 101 of 163 passes (62%) for 1,381 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 277 yards on 58 carries with three rushing scores while helping lead Newton to a 6-4-1 mark and a playoff appearance. Middlebrooks won our offensive player of the year honors, and with another year of experience – and perhaps a little bulk and strength added to his frame – Middlebrooks could very well take outgoing Eastside senior Austin Holloway’s place as the county’s top player.
2. RB Taylor Carter, Rising Jr., 5-8, 170 pounds, Eastside: Carter split time in the Eagles’ offensive backfield with productive senior Anthony Brown, and he still managed to rush for 547 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. More than the stats, though, Carter showed that special wiggle and extra gear that could make him a game breaker as a potential featured back in Eastside’s offense. And with the departure of a stout senior class with guys like Holloway, Eric Stokes, Josh Sims and Brown leaving, a lot of the offensive load could shift onto Carter’s legs running behind an offensive line that should feature rising senior Lamarius Benson.
3. DE Darnell Jefferies, Rising Sr., 6-3, 265 pounds, Newton: Jefferies may very well be one of our most highly touted, highly recruited players before 2017 is all said and done. After transferring to Newton following his sophomore season, Jefferies showed major big play ability on a lean but fast Newton defensive line. His 2016 campaign netted him a fast glut of recruiting overtures from the likes of Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Colorado State and Wake Forest. Recruiting prognosticators are putting their money on UGA being his favorite, but one thing that’s sure in high school football recruiting is nothing is sure until the letter of intent is signed. At any rate, it could be Jefferies’ defense in 2017 with the departure of standouts like Jeremiah Bundrage and Jaquan Henderson.
4. DT Spurgeon Gaither, Rising Sr., 6-2, 275 pounds, Eastside: Could 2017 be the year of the defensive lineman in Newton County? If guys like Jefferies and Gaither are any indication, it’s possible. Gaither came on, particularly toward the end of the 2016 season and showed a nose for the football and a seemingly everlasting motor. He totaled 58 stops this past season, with 13.5 tackles for losses. And with senior stars Garrett Stevens and Cameron Gaither graduating, Spurgeon could be an anchor for the Eastside front seven next season. A solid senior year could have college scouts salivating over the talented defensive tackle.
5. The Alcovy Offensive Backfield: This isn’t meant to slight any one player from the opportunity of being singled out. We just believe the combination of Quindrelin Hammonds (Rising Sr.); Cameron Anderson (Rising Jr.) and twin tailbacks Andrae and Adrian Robinson could create a more-than-formidable offensive attack for the Tigers in coach Chris Edgar’s second season. And he’s excited about it, too. He has said that the brunt of the offseason work will be dedicated to building a big, strong offensive line for the aforementioned legs to run behind. This past season’s Alcovy football team was vastly improved from the product of the last two years. But the 2017 version of Alcovy football could be playoff bound with the right complements to the already existing talent. Edgar’s hiring of an offensive coordinator could also be the missing ingredient to a potent offense in the next season.
6. WR Brayden Harper, Rising Sr., 5-11, 185 pounds, Eastside: Harper will be one of, if not the, leading returning receivers in 2017. He finished 2016 second on the team’s receiving charts with 26 catches, 444 yards and three touchdowns, behind graduating senior Josh Sims. His 17.1 yards-per-catch average was second on the team among players with 10 or more catches. Only Eric Stokes’ 18.3 yards-per-catch average was better. He, along with sophomore Jamari Brown can give whoever wins the quarterback battle at Eastside two solid targets in the passing game. Harper also saw some time at quarterback last season, albeit limited. He finished 13-of-22 passing with 178 yards.
7. OL Remy Naza, Jr. Rising Sr., 6-3, 255 pounds, Newton: The Newton offensive skill players will benefit by a strong Newton offensive line, and Naza may be one of the county’s better tackles by the time 2017 is done. He gets off the line quick, he’s effective when pulling and has a little bit of the requisite offensive line mean streak that pops off the screen when watching his film. With Middlebrooks returning, along with junior-to-be Adarius Thomas and a hopefully healed Nuru Tinch, the Rams’ ground game could be punishing.
8. WR Tyrease Peacock, Rising Sr., 5-10, 155 pounds, Newton: Speaking of Newton’s offense, when the Rams throw it, Peacock should be a key target. He finished 2016 third on the team in both receiving yards (296) and catches (17). His six touchdown catches were good for second on the team, and his 17.4 yards-per-catch average was best among pass catchers with 15 or more receptions. With the departure of Jeremiah Holloman (31 catches, 513 yards) and Dante Johnson (23 catches, 356 yards) due to graduation, Peacock would be the team’s leading returning pass catcher.
9. DB Demetrius Tuggle, Rising Sr., 5-9, 162 pounds, Alcovy: It’s easy to talk about all of the offensive weaponry returning for Alcovy in 2017 – particularly in the ground game. But don’t sleep on Tuggle. He will be the team’s second leading returning tackler next season, and he and junior Trey Smith combined for five picks in 2016. He had eight pass breakups in the month of September alone. He has great ball skills, despite his diminutive stature, and if he actually gets it in his hands, he’s dangerous. With the graduations of Koby Perry and Kyrese Knox, look for Tuggle (and Smith) to step up nicely into lead roles in the secondary.
10. RB Nuru Tinch, Rising Sr., 5-11, 202 pounds, Newton: Don’t check the 2016 stats sheet if you want to look for the kind of potential Tinch has. Look, instead, at his hudl.com highlight video and his offer list. Tinch saw limited time in 2016 due to injury, but with his stocky frame, he looks the part. He has one-cut-and-go ability, and can punish you between the tackles. He’s also got more-than-serviceable receiving skills coming out of the backfield. Despite a shortened junior season, Tinch picked up offers from Ball State and UAB, with interest from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee. A healthy Tinch in 2017 could mean big things for both his recruiting stock and Newton’s state playoff possibilities.
11. WR Jamari Brown, Rising Jr., 5-11, 165 pounds, Eastside: Brown had a strong sophomore debut, with 25 catches for 382 yards and two scores. He, along with Brayden Harper will serve as the returning receivers for Eastside. Brown has shown the versatility to stretch defenses and be effective as a possession receiver. And he’s got two more full seasons at Eastside to solidify himself as a go-to pass-catcher.
These are obviously just a few names. As sports editor, I’m still getting to know the talent in the area, so please feel free to drop me an email or a phone call or find me on Twitter (@GabrielStovall1 or @CovNewsSports) and clue me in on the possible standouts and stars to watch for in 2017.