Tonight marks the mid-point of the high school football season, five weeks of region clashes, surprise starts and thrilling games. John McWilliams and Brian Paglia break down first-half superlatives.
McWilliams: Hampton McConnell. The junior West Forsyth quarterback proved himself against stellar competition early in the season. McConnell is a dual-threat quarterback who leads the county with 521 rushing yards and touts 596 passing yards with a total of nine touchdowns. He’s guided West to a 3-2 start to the season, but since the schedule becomes significantly easier, the Wolverines shouldn’t lose more than one game in region play with McConnell at the helm.
Paglia: You could make a case for Pinecrest fullback Andrew Wilborn (516 yards, 2 TDs) or West running back Trevor O’Brien (448 yards, 6 TDs) or South running back Isaiah Williams (564 all-purpose yards, 4 TDs), but McConnell is the right choice. He had huge shoes to fill, taking over for A.J. Erdely, last season’s Offensive Player of the Year, and has West averaging a county-best 32 points per game. He’s on pace for over 2,000 yards of offense and only figures to get better.
McWilliams: Lambert’s Jeremy Johnson is a bloodhound on defense. The junior defensive back has a knack for finding the football and is tied for the county lead with three interceptions. His 49 tackles are good enough for third in the county and 11 off the lead. Johnson and the Lambert defense have allowed 17.2 points per game, which is impressive considering the Longhorns have been turnover prone through the first half.
Paglia: Johnson has certainly been a force for Lambert, including on special teams, but I’ll go with his teammate, senior linebacker Connor McCann. Our pre-season pick to have a breakout season is making us look smart. He’s fifth in the county with 39 tackles (20 solo) and is doing a lot of damage behind the line of scrimmage – eight tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks. He’s also caused a fumble and recovered another for a touchdown.
COACH OF THE YEAR
McWilliams: Jason Galt has done wonders with North Forsyth. The first-year head coach took over a program that hadn’t won a region game since September 2011 and already broke that streak with a 24-6 region victory at Chattahoochee. Galt, who is known for his Double Wing offense, may have accomplished more on the defensive side of the ball. North has recorded two shutouts and is allowing 9.4 points per game.
Paglia: Most first-year coaches come in hoping to "change the culture," as they often say. Jason Galt is actually doing it. North’s new coach already has the Raiders one-win better than last year and popping up on state playoff projections. More importantly, he’s brought the right kind of schemes to fit North’s talent – a dominant rushing attack that keeps North’s defense rested and ready to blitz opponents. The schedule gets tougher from here on out, but the Raiders believe they can handle it.
McWilliams: Grant Umberger is just a sophomore but has already made his presence known for South Forsyth. The powerful running back gashed Lambert for 140 yards on 12 carries and has totaled 263 yards and two touchdowns through five games. Umberger doesn’t avoid tacklers, but rather bowls them over. He’s eighth in the county in rushing yards, behind teammates Isaiah Williams and Tyler LaFlamme with an average of 52.6 yards per game.
Paglia: Victor Peppers. The Forsyth Central junior linebacker has been the biggest bright spot for the Bulldogs this season. He leads the county with 60 tackles (45 solo) and has four tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries, one sack and one forced fumble. True, Central’s defense has struggled this season allowing 34.3 points per game, but that shouldn’t diminish Peppers’ play. He belongs in the conversation of the top defensive players in the county.
McWilliams: North Forsyth. The last time the Raiders started the season with four wins they made the playoffs. Quarterback Harris Roberts has managed the offense, while bruising running back Jamal Davenport and scatback Luke Slaton have piled on the yards. North has a shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Its toughest stretch begins next Friday at home against Alpharetta before squaring off against rival West Forsyth on the road.
Paglia: Most teams have had surprising moments – South beating Lambert, Lambert beating North, North beating Chattahoochee, West beating Flowery Branch. But considering circumstances and body of work, North has to be the most surprising team overall. The Raiders snapped a 12-game region losing streak dating back to 2011, have the best defense (statistically) in the county and newfound confidence under first-year coach Jason Galt.