A new season brings new changes, and four of those changes will take place at the quarterback position.
Lambert, Pinecrest Academy, South Forsyth and West Forsyth will open the season with a new signal caller tonight. Forsyth Central and North Forsyth both return Michael Branigan and Harris Roberts, respectively, but both have had to learn a new offense.
Each team wants to win, but equally important is the progression of all four quarterbacks before region play begins in Week 4.
The Longhorns’ Hayden McLeod is the only senior of the bunch to get the starting nod, while South’s Matt White and West’s Hampton McConnell are juniors. Pinecrest will be the only school to start an underclassman at quarterback, as sophomore Jake Mangan takes the reigns.
McLeod isn’t entirely new to the job, as he started last year against Chattahoochee and West when former quarterback Brock Maxwell was injured. The Lambert quarterback will face an Etowah defense that held the Longhorns to 14 points last season.
"Just relatively very consistent gameplay [is expected]," McLeod said. "I try to keep the pace of the game going at all times and I try not to make too many mistakes and make sure I manage the game time well and just making sure the team and everyone’s ready to go and firing on all cylinders."
Added Lambert head coach Sid Maxwell: "He’s doing a good job managing the offense. There’s going to be a learning curve when you start for the first time in the season. …Probably the biggest challenge he has for us being successful is every time we go out there, he’s got to move the chains."
For McConnell, he will have an early test as West plays Class 5A’s No.1-ranked Gainesville. Head coach Frank Hepler thinks the tough matchup will allow his quarterback to grow and work out the kinks before region play.
"We expect a lot from our quarterback position," Hepler said. "The last couple of years we’ve gotten a lot of production…and we think Hampton McConnell can come in and have that same type of production.
"Depending on how you do [against Gainesville], you’re going to learn, regardless. Gainesville, with their athletes, you’re going to find out right away how you stack up. They’re probably one of the best teams in the country, so you’ll know the improvements you have to make and you’ll know what your strengths are."
McConnell has the task of replacing the offensive player of the year, but he isn’t worried about the added pressure and just wants to win.
"I think [my goal] is to fill to leadership role for the team and try to help my team get another region championship and for us to play to the best of our potential," he said. "A.J. was a good player, but I’m not trying to be A.J. Erdely, I want to be Hampton McConnell."
Pinecrest’s Mangan also won’t have an easy time when the Paladins host King’s Ridge. But despite being a sophomore, head coach Todd Winter felt Mangan understood the offense and earned the job.
"I thought he operated the offense really well [in the scrimmage] and got us in position and led us to a score in the third quarter," Winter said. "He made a nice read and got it kicked out to the pitch faze. He also had no turnovers in the game and he threw the ball pretty effectively on some spread-outs."
Added Mangan: "It’s definitely nerve-racking. …I really worked my butt off this summer to get the starting position. I really think the team’s coming together really well. I think we win [tonight]."
The War Eagles’ White should have a much easier transition into the starting position as he leads the team against Northview. The pressure won’t be as high on the junior since South boasts tailback Isaiah Williams and athlete Sam Walker on offense.
Coming off an ACL tear during the spring game last season, White feels healthy and is anxious to play ball.
"[I] feel good," White said. "I’m excited. We’ve come a long way since summer, and we’ve put a lot of work into it. It’s been a long time coming. I’m ready for payday.
"…Sitting on the sidelines and missing the games, just seeing it and realizing how much I missed [football]. I’d rather by on the field. It really motivated me during physical therapy to work hard and get back out there."
South head coach Jeff Arnette is confident White possesses the skill sets necessary to succeed at the position. White will have full control of the offense and won’t be limited.
"…Matt’s had a good fall," Arnette said, "throws the ball really well, has good presence in the pocket. We’ll see. He’s still young. He was out all last year, torn ACL, so he came back and had a lot to get back and has done a good job. It’ll be his first real action in a while.
"If he’s named the starter, he knows the offense. We’re not going to hold him back. We feel like he can do every bit of our offense. I’ve got great confidence in him, but you never know until they’re out there in the fire. The potential’s there to be a really good QB. You never can say until they get under the lights in a real game. He played real well at Winder-Barrow and hopefully he’ll do the same [tonight]."