Last week, it was the championship edition of my preseason 2014 Forsyth County high school football players of the year forecast. Defense wins championships, right?
But we move now to the fireworks of football, the soaring passes and game-breaking runs, the players who light up the scoreboard every Friday night.
The players who made this list are all familiar names, a testament to the talent returning this season, and at the top of that list is the incumbent in West Forsyth rising senior quarterback Hampton McConnell. Conventional wisdom says he’s the favorite, but is there an emerging running back or a precocious quarterback ready to leap ahead of McConnell?
Who knows? It’s far too early to know but not too early to guess. So here are my top 5 candidates for 2014 Forsyth County Offensive Player of the Year:
TYLER LAFLAMME, SOUTH FORSYTH
Last season, Isaiah Williams was going to be the War Eagles primary running back. That was a certainty. But the question was who would emerge to compliment Williams in the backfield.
LaFlamme provided the answer rushing for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns on 147 carries to help South to its best season since 2000.
Why LaFlamme: The 5-foot-10, 195-pound rising senior is a physical presence on offense that showed a knack for getting in the end zone (his 13 touchdowns were second in the county.) With Williams graduated, LaFlamme figures to step into his role as the primary rusher, so expect his carries and yards to go up.
Why not: South lost three starters off last season’s offensive line, including two Division I signees in Kyle Watford (Air Force) and Davis Winkie (Vanderbilt), so it remains to be seen how capable the War Eagles’ replacements will be. If that unit’s effectiveness wanes, so will LaFlamme’s player of the year candidacy.
RYAN MCCARTHY, PINECREST ACADEMY
McCarthy wasn’t supposed to be the Paladins’ starter last season. He was a freshman, after all, and Jake Mangan had won the starting job. But McCarthy was thrust into the spotlight when Mangan suffered a broken collarbone and was out for the season.
McCarthy had his "freshman moments" but proved a capable signal caller in Pinecrest’s triple-option offense. He finished the season 27-for-81 passing for 468 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 282 yards and 10 touchdowns on 83 carries.
Why McCarthy: Here’s assuming that McCarthy takes a big step forward with virtually a full season of varsity action under his belt and another offseason to grasp the triple option. He has all the intangibles – big arm, 6-foot-3, calm demeanor. If he keeps developing, watch out.
Why not: As a freshman, McCarthy struggled at times with his accuracy (33.3 completion percentage) and decision making (seven interceptions to four touchdowns.) Can those improve as Pinecrest moves into a new region with tougher competition?
HAMPTON MCCONNELL, WEST FORSYTH
McConnell enters the season as the prohibitive favorite to repeat as county Offensive Player of the Year.
Last season, the 6-foot-3, 197-pounder led the county in completions (129), completion percentage (62.9 percent), yards (1,704) and passing touchdowns (11) and was fourth in rushing (794 yards) and third in rushing touchdowns (11) – all in his first season as a starter.
His playmaking helped the Wolverines go 7-4 and tie a county record with their fourth straight playoff appearance.
Why McConnell: Yes, McConnell accomplished all that he did last season as a first-year starter. Imagine what he will do with another offseason of development and familiarity with West’s offense? It doesn’t hurt that the Georgia Southern commit’s top wide receiver returns in Nathan Schmitz.
Why not: More will be McConnell’s shoulder than ever this season. West’s 1,000-yard rusher Trevor O’Brien transferred to Lambert, leaving the Wolverines a significant hole to fill (more on that in a second.) Three offensive linemen graduated, including Georgia Tech signee Andrew Marshall. The good news for McConnell (and West) is the Wolverines always seem to have a capable replacement waiting in the wings.
TREVOR O'BRIEN, LAMBERT
Here’s a familiar face in a different place.
The 5-foot-8, 185-pounder rushed for 1,852 yards and 22 touchdowns the past two seasons at West Forsyth. Last season, he led the county in rushing with 1,052 yards on 170 carries with a county-best 15 touchdowns. He also caught 18 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown.
O’Brien transferred to Lambert this offseason where the rising senior will finish out his high school career.
Why O’Brien: The Longhorns lacked a steady, veteran running back last season. Sophomore Kameron Pickett showed flashes but transferred to North Gwinnett. Sophomore quarterback Tucker Maxwell showed some, too, finishing third in the county with 831 rushing yards. But O’Brien instantly upgrades Lambert’s experience and talent at the position on a team that expects to be back in the playoffs.
Why not: Based on last season’s statistics, O’Brien is taking a step down in joining Lambert’s offense. O’Brien helped West average a county-best 33.5 points per game last season. The Longhorns averaged 20.1. The addition of O’Brien and maturation of Lambert’s returning skill players should improve that mark.
ZAC SLATON, NORTH FORSYTH
Another Slaton at North, another playmaker for the Raiders.
The sophomore running back shared carries with older brother Luke, Jamal Davenport and others and bested them all in first season on varsity. He rushed for 534 yards and eight touchdowns on 133 carries and caught six passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
Slaton helped North go 6-5 and end a two-year playoff drought.
Why Slaton: Once again, the Raiders will pound opposing defenses with its Double-Wing offense. Expect Slaton to get more carries this season, and consider this: Slaton gets to run behind 6-foot-4, 295-pounder Jackson Bardall, arguably the county’s top offensive lineman. That would improve anyone’s player of the year hopes.
Why not: Slaton isn’t your prototypical running back at 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, so maybe durability could be an issue (though never tell that to a Slaton.) But perhaps more crucial would be Slaton improving on his 4.02 yards per carry last season.
Five more to consider: Sabrien Howard, Forsyth Central; Tucker Maxwell, Lambert; Matt White, South Forsyth; Colton Miller, North Forsyth; Grant Umberger, South Forsyth.
Brian Paglia is sports editor of the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at email@example.com, 770-205-8976 or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.