By Foster Lander and Brian Paglia
Feast your eyes on him!
Part Barbir, part Johnson, part McConnell, part Peppers, part Schmitz and part Walters, he is a figment of our imagination brought to life by the twisted minds of the Forsyth County News’ sports staff.
On this Halloween, we wanted to create the perfect Forsyth football player, combining the best attributes from some of the county’s top players to make one monster on the field.
Alex Barbir, South Forsyth
The story is a familiar one: soccer player with strong leg converts to football and discovers he can kick an oblong brown ball through two yellow posts.
South Forsyth junior kicker Alex Barbir started playing soccer when he was four years old and would always be the player to take free kicks and score goals on long, powerful shots. Barbir’s dad played college soccer. His cousin, Danny, plays for the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team and is in the West Bromwich Albion (a team in England’s top soccer league) youth academy. In eighth grade, football coaches saw his strong leg first-hand in P.E. kickball games and invited Alex to try football. It’s worked out well.
"I had to choose between soccer and football, and I chose football because I know it’s what I can do in college," Barbir said. "The way you kick the ball in soccer and football is totally different. In football, you need muscle memory in your leg to do the same motion every time. It’s hard to keep that going back and forth with playing soccer."
Barbir learned how to kick a football mostly on his own, with some help from kicking coach Chris Sailer and countless hours spent watching Youtube videos. With no soccer to worry about this spring, Barbir can focus solely on football going in to his senior season.
He missed the chance to kick for colleges in person last summer due to injury, but the junior has visited Auburn and Clemson recently and is expecting those two schools, Vanderbilt, and Liberty to travel to Cumming to watch him in the next few weeks.
"This offseason is going to be huge," Barbir said. "All my focus is going to be on kicking."
Jeremy Johnson, Lambert
Lambert opponents finally started to use some sense and stopped kicking the ball to Jeremy Johnson. Johnson returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in the Longhorns’ first two games; last Friday, West refused to give the Lambert senior any chance at a return.
"I think I have another gear when it comes to that wide open speed, but," Johnson said, laughing, "I almost got caught from behind on that touchdown against Lanier. I just happened to pick my feet up at the right time."
The Longhorns’ senior safety was recently offered a football scholarship by Marshall but is committed to play baseball at Auburn. An Atlanta Braves scout, who told Johnson he’d likely be drafted around the 20th round in this year’s MLB Draft, is planning on visiting The Horn next week to see him play.
Johnson started playing safety in his first year of football at age seven, but he always thought he would be an offensive player. Lambert needed defensive backs when he was a freshman, so Johnson played both ways until moving to defense full-time last season. Straight-line speed and the ability to turn your hips is crucial at safety—that was never an issue for Johnson.
"Speed of the mind is the biggest thing at safety," he said. "If you can read a play quickly, it makes you faster than what a raw athlete back there … not many people have both foot speed and mind speed, but the guys that do are the elite athletes."
Nate Schmitz, West Forsyth
As soon as West Forsyth quarterback Hampton McConnell releases the pass, Wolverines senior wide receiver Nathan Schmitz is in his element.
For the 6-foot-1, 175-pounder, it’s the same thing he does in the spring playing right field for the West baseball team.
"Seeing the ball come out of his hands, I can make a better judgment on it as soon as it comes out," Schmitz said.
And, usually, Schmitz’s judgment results in a big-time play.
There arguably hasn’t been a better receiver in Forsyth County the past two seasons than Schmitz. Last year, he had a county-best 422 receiving yards on 26 catches to go along with five touchdowns in 11 games as West made the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
This season, he’s been even better. Through eight games, Schmitz leads the county again with 599 receiving yards on 29 catches to go along with five touchdowns.
Schmitz grew up playing mostly defensive end and outside linebacker, but he relished the feeling of making the catch and leaving defensive backs behind. He switched to receiver full-time at Vickery Creek Middle where he and McConnell started to develop their on-field connection.
But Schmitz said things got really fun his ninth and 10th grade seasons at West. He became a student of the position, perfecting his stance at the line of scrimmage, his route-running, using his leverage against defensive backs.
"You have to see a lot of film," Schmitz said.
Hampton McConnell, West Forsyth
Here was a running back that the team couldn’t help but make pass the ball. Whenever his youth football team wanted to run a half-back pass, it always called on Hampton McConnell. It worked well enough that McConnell’s dad suggested he play quarterback.
"I wanted to run the ball, but I didn’t know you could run at quarterback," McConnell said. "Then I figured it out [that I could], and I’ve been doing it ever since."
No one’s been better at the position over the past two seasons. The Georgia Southern commit and senior who was the 2013 Forsyth County News’ Offensive Player of the Year has already passed for more touchdowns than last season (13) and is on pace to pass for more yards (1,342).
At the beginning, McConnell’s best quality at quarterback was the power in his arm.
"I think I’ve always been able to throw the ball really far and hard," McConnell said. "…I think it’s something that you get, and I think was lucky to get that."
How far can he throw it?
"One time I threw it 65 yards without pads," he said.
In a game?
"I haven’t really tested it out," he said. "Sixty is probably the max."
More crucial to his development and West’s success has been the other intricate ways he now uses his arm. He can throw intermediate passes, deft screen passes. He’s honed his mechanics and learned how to lead receivers with his passes.
"That’s where I’ve put in all my work these past few years playing quarterback with coach [Adam] Clack," McConnell said. "…Throwing slants and getting the ball out quick and quick release and taking a three-step drop and trying to throw a dig route or something, that’s the hard part."
Except for the past two seasons, McConnell’s made it look easy.
Matthew Walters, Pinecrest Academy
Four games into his eighth grade football season, Matthew Walter broke his wrist. At the time, his team was 4-0, but without Walters the season unraveled.
"I told myself I wasn’t going to let that happen again," Walters said, "so I just built my body up so I would be the biggest guy on the field."
Three years later, no one is more imposing stepping off the Pinecrest bus than Walters. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior is a handful for defenses at fullback and a nightmare for offensive linemen at nose guard or defensive end.
Just consider the numbers he’s put up in the weight room. He joined Pinecrest’s 1,000-pound club as a sophomore. His max on the bench press is 320 pounds, on the power clean is 275 pounds and on squats is 500 pounds.
And those are from the spring. Pinecrest head coach Todd Winter said the Paladins haven’t maxed out since.
"Those are really high for a high school sophomore," Winter said.
The first time Walter felt his strength get results on the football field was last season in Pinecrest’s season-opener against King’s Ridge Christian. He was on kickoff coverage running downfield when he saw a big player coming full-speed his way.
"He thought he was going to lay me out," Walters said, "and he just fell down, got up and did a little wobble back to the sideline."
Victor Peppers, Forsyth Central
Forsyth Central’s Victor Peppers was a First Team All-County selection at linebacker last year and was third in Forsyth County with 98 tackles.
He had never played the position until last season. Peppers had always been an offensive guard.
"Playing inside [linebacker] was pretty natural to me," Peppers said. "I felt I was a better fit size-wise at linebacker—I was too small to keep playing offensive line. Plus, I have the speed for a linebacker."
Peppers is one of the leaders of a Forsyth Central defense that is allowing just 16.25 points per game this year after giving up 28 per game in the Bulldogs’ 2-8 campaign last season.
"Everybody is all in, and the seniors have bought in to what we’re doing and actually care this season," Peppers said. "If things are being done wrong, we talk and let our feelings be known."
Peppers is a sure tackler and seems to be in the right spot to always be around the ball and make plays.
Central coach Shane Williamson is in his second season, meaning his defense is familiar with play calls and where they’re supposed to line up. Now, the Bulldogs can go out and play full-speed.
"We watch a lot of film but you can never really watch enough film," Peppers said. "I’m not much of a vocal leader—I don’t say a whole lot—but I always know where I need to be and I lead by example that way."