The 2021 Forsyth County News Media Day kicked off the high school football season Wednesday and provided a glimpse into nine different football programs.
Here are a few observations from the Forsyth County News sports staff on media day, which featured coaches and players from Forsyth Central, Denmark, East Forsyth, Horizon Christian, Lambert, North Forsyth, Pinecrest, South Forsyth and West Forsyth.
Five Things We Learned
1. Lambert is going to run the ball — and they're going to do it with Harrison Peyton
Lambert head coach Tommy Watson has the gift of gab.
He's confident when he speaks about this year's bunch of Longhorns, especially up front on the offensive line.
"I think when we take the field this year, people are going to say, 'Man, what did them guys do to get better?' I'm really excited to see what those guys do this year," Watson said.
That confidence spills over to running back Harrison Peyton, who admits he's already a confident guy.
Peyton broke out at linebacker as a sophomore, then moved to safety last season in Watson's first year. Once Watson saw what Peyton could do with the ball in his hands, he became a fixture at running back.
"The region's about to find out who that cat right there is," Watson said. "I promise you."
Peyton torched Gainesville last year for 163 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, but broke his leg and missed the remainder of the season.
"It's been good. I'm just glad to be back," Peyton said. "It was a really long process. It took a long time to heal, but I'm 100 percent now, and as Coach Watson said, 'Y'all about to find out who I am.'"
2. Pinecrest's jump back into 11-man football will be different for offense, defense
Around this time last year, Pinecrest Academy head coach Shawn Coury was tallying up everybody in the football program, from projected returners to eighth-graders who would be freshmen in 2021.
The way he figured, if everybody returned for the 2021-22 school year, Pinecrest's varsity football team would have 27 players.
A year and one GAPPS Division II state championship later, that's precisely how many players the Paladins boast in their return back to 11-man football.
"This was our goal, right? We were in a position to play 8-man because of the number of guys that we had, but we built an offense that was easily transferrable," Coury said. "So, we haven't changed anything. We've been running the same stuff all summer that we ran all last year. We just have two tackles and a fullback now. So, everything is still the same — the route combinations, the numbering system. It was a very smooth transition offensively."
The offense will remain the same, and so will many of the players. Starting quarterback Breckin Barbee returns, as do Colin Brown and Ryan Bartling — each scored a touchdown in the championship game against Lanier Christian.
Perhaps the biggest challenge lies on the defensive side of the ball, where three more players allows for more flexibility.
"Defensively, it is different. We are naming things different [and] our fronts are different," Coury said. "When you really look at an 8-man defense versus an 11-man defense, those extra three guys make a huge difference with what you do with your front."
3. Raiders confident in Drew Aucoin at quarterback
Drew Aucoin is not a typical first-year quarterback.
A rising senior, this year will be Aucoin's first — and last — season as North Forsyth's QB. However, Aucoin already has plenty of playing time under his belt.
He was a staple on special teams last year, and North's assistant coaches believe Aucoin would start at linebacker if he wasn't the Raiders' quarterback. Aucoin recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown last season against Etowah.
"I did play on special teams, so I knew what the field was like and what the competition was going to be like," Aucoin said. "I knew it was my time to step up and be a leader."
North Forsyth head coach Robert Craft joked that the only way Aucoin would play special teams this season would be to hold an occasional snap.
Craft added that he's noticed Aucoin earned the respect of his teammates.
"I think if you walk out to our practice field or in our locker room or in our weight room, you see the respect that he gets from his teammates," Craft said. "That's priceless. That's one of the top ingredients for a quarterback."
Aucoin also received an endorsement from starting center JT Francis.
"Drew's great at quarterback," Francis said. "Sometimes I feel like when I'm out there and I feel like I don't know what's going on, Drew's always got my back. We always knows what's going on [and] he knows the playbook, so he's the best person to put in there."
4. Shamurad Umarov anchors Danes' bigger, stronger offensive line
Denmark's starting quarterback might still be unknown, but there's no mistaking who will protect him.
Shamurad Umarov, a rising junior at Denmark, caught the attention of several college coaching staffs this summer, earning offers from Florida, North Carolina, South Florida, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
"He jumped 35 pounds this offseason. He's a completely different player and he dedicated himself," Denmark head coach Mike Palmieri said. "He knew he had to take care of his body and get a little stronger. He was lean last year — wasn't really strong, so he got pushed around a little bit. So, he dedicated himself to the weight room."
Umarov, now listed at 6-foot-6, 295 pounds, started at left tackle as a junior last season. Realistically, Umarov has only three years of football experience, which has Palmieri excited about his potential.
"[He's] super talented and going to be one of the best linemen in the state," Palmieri said. "He's a leader on and off the field. Sham's been a big surprise for us this year."
5. Central has track speed in offensive backfield
Forsyth Central's backfield will pack quite the one-two punch.
Head coach David Rooney expects three to four backs will carry the ball early in the season, but two intriguing options are Patrick Haertel and Marcus Brown.
Haertel averaged 4.3 yards per carry last year as a junior, collecting 189 yards and three touchdowns. Brown, who also plays defensive back, finished second on the team with four pass breakups and led the Bulldogs with two fumble recoveries.
In the spring, they accounted for half of Central's 4x100m relay team. Haertel ran the 100m dash in 11.00 at the Class 7A sectional meet to finish ninth.
"He's the fastest on our team, the strongest on our team and probably sets the example the best among everyone else on the team," Rooney said of Haertel.
Brown flashed his scouting abilities when asked to describe his teammate.
"I see Patrick as, he's very good at downhill running," Brown said. "He's improving on his cutting and reading the field more, because last year he just ran straight. We've got a coach that's helping us with our cuts and reading holes."
Five Things We Heard
1. Another gem from Lambert head coach Tommy Watson.
If we wanted to, I'd imagine we could dig up five quotes from Watson alone that would fill this section. That doesn't seem fair, so here's Lambert's second-year head coach talking about the Longhorns' strength program during the offseason.
"I'll tell you what we did," Watson said. "I've got a strength coach at Lambert that I brought with me from Lowndes. I told Coach [Curtis] Mattair, I said, 'Look here. We're finna to pick this weight room up and we're gonna dump it on top of them. The ones that come out are gonna be Longhorns."
2. South Forsyth head coach Troy Morris didn't want to tip his hand, but when Chris Nelson won a state championship in the Class 7A 200m this spring, opposing teams had to know what's coming this fall. How much will Chris Nelson and Josh Nelson touch the ball on offense for the War Eagles?
"Never. You're never going to see those [guys]. Don't prepare for them. Don't even expect them," Morris said, coyly. "No, they're going to touch it a lot. They're going to get a lot of opportunities in the offense. Chris [Nelson] and Josh [Nelson] both are great kids. Yeah, they're really, really fast and they're great track athletes, but I tell people all the time they're football players that run track, in my opinion. They're really good football players. They're exciting, they're electric and we're going to do everything we can to get them involved in as many different ways as we can."
3. Bryce Allen set West Forsyth's school record last season with 23 pass breakups. How can he top that in 2021-22?
"I hope he sets it again, or I hope he catches the ball better — maybe set the school record for interceptions," West Forsyth head coach Dave Svehla said with a laugh. "No, Bryce is just a good football player. Bryce is a coachable kid. Bryce had a good year last year, and he had a really good year as a sophomore the year before I got there."
4. Horizon Christian head coach Damon Taylor hopes for another productive season from Tanner Story after he led the Warriors with 834 receiving yards and 15 touchdown catches last season.
"Honestly, and I'm not just saying this because he's on my team, but I don't think anyone can stay in front of the kid," Taylor said. "I mean, he's just that fast, and his route-running is just superb."
5. Each one of East Forsyth's representatives at media day came from North Forsyth. Don't tell that to Brian Allison. East Forsyth's first-year head coach said that observation had never occurred to him because the Broncos have built their identity out of coming together to forge one team.
"We've put that behind us, because we're one team now," Allison said. "There's no North or Central. In all reality, we have kids from probably eight or nine different schools, including the middle schools and a couple of different transfers from different schools. We've got kids from everywhere, so we've tried to put that behind us."