By Gabriel Stovall
LOVEJOY, Ga. — If you liked offense, then you should’ve been at Twelve Oaks Stadium in Lovejoy Saturday when Lovejoy and Drew faced off in a preseason scrimmage.
But here’s the thing — For much of the game, it felt like anything except a scrimmage.
The Wildcats won 28-20 in a game where starters on both teams saw almost three full quarters of action. It gave coaches and fans alike an opportunity to see what we could be calling two of the area’s most explosive offenses by the end of the season.
It was a battle of two highly talented quarterbacks — one, a sophomore in Hajj-Malik Williams whose got a sense of maturity beyond his years. Williams will be at the controls of a Lovejoy offense that could be better than last year’s squad that featured former 5-star wide receiver recruit — and Tennessee freshman — Preston Williams. If it happens that way, it’ll be because of balance.
Williams has a lot of youth around him — he’s young and varsity-unproven himself — but that youth is chocked full of talent.
Meanwhile, Drew has perhaps the best quarterback in the Southern Crescent right now in senior Joseph Newman.
Here’s a closer look at what Saturday showed us about these two teams:
-DREW’S BIG THREE: The Titans were running its offense at breakneck pace at times, with Newman doing his best Marcus Mariota, Oregon Ducks impression. If Drew was running vanilla style offense — as most coaches choose to do in scrimmages — it’ll be interesting to see what the full compliment looks like come midseason. To be sure, Drew faced a stout defense in Lovejoy that stifled the Titans at times, but not many teams will be able to hold down the trio of Newman, tailback Quarderman Sloan and senior wide receiver Bryson Duckworth.
Newman is no secret. The senior accounted for almost 3,000 yards of offense in 2015, with 35 total touchdowns — 24 through the air and 11 on the ground. He’s Drew’s most dangerous weapon. But Sloan is not only the team’s top running back, but also the leading returning receiver. That kind of versatility will cause matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He had several nice catches from the backfield Saturday, and he’s a jitterbug with the ball in his hand. As for Duckworth, if you’ve never heard of him, you’re missing out on a treat. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Duckworth is a major target who can go up and get the ball, and run well for his size. There aren’t many corners in the Southern Crescent who has the size or strength to match up with him one on one.
-NOT JUST THE CUSTIS SHOW: If you’ve been following Lovejoy for a time, you’ve heard the name “Custis” thrown around a few times — most likely starting with former star tailback Travis Custis who broke Tashard Choice’s single season school rushing record. Then there’s last year’s 4-star safety prospect Montrell who’s now a freshman at Ole Miss.
Now sophomore tailback Zion Custis is coming up through the ranks as one to watch this season. He’s a little guy with a thick frame who has the speed to bounce runs to the outside and the toughness to battle for cloud-of-dust yardage between the tackles. But he’s not alone. Along with Custis, coach Ed Carson has senior Aaron Miller and juniors Malik Route — a talented receiver as well — and the speedy Santo Dunn. At first Carson may have been set on finding a full time starter. But with three versatile guys like Custis, Miller and Dunn and a multipurpose guy like Route, there has to be a way to get all of those playmakers on the field at one time.
-GETTING DEFENSIVE: Chris Henderson is the stud on defense for Lovejoy. The Indiana commitment was regularly disruptive in the Drew backfield, finishing with a sack and five tackles. He also caught a touchdown pass in the red zone. Henderson leads a defense that’s going to be small, but fast. I expect Drew to be a threat to score 30 to 40 points per game against any one it plays. But the Wildcats were able to keep Newman and company reasonably corralled. As for Drew, let’s just say that finding consistent playmakers on defense will be a challenge.
The Titans gave up yards in chunks to a Lovejoy offense that is no slouch in its own right. Last year drew gave up 26.8 points per game, and they’ve lost a lot of playmakers. But they averaged 42.7 points per game last year with a large contingent of that offensive firepower returning. That means Drew may have to outscore some folks for a while while coach Dorwyn Lyles gets the defense together.
-THE HAJJ-MALIK WILLIAMS SHOW: So we’re not saying it’s all about one player. But let’s be real. The quarterback position on any level of football is always the focal point. And after last year’s starter Quintarius Neely transferred to Roswell, all eyes have shifted to the 6-foot-1, 180 pound sophomore who led the Lovejoy JV squad to a county title last year. Williams is quickly developing into a leader on and off the field. And for all the talk of Newman’s speed and throwing ability, Williams showed Saturday night that he can hold his own against anyone.
His most exciting play Saturday was his 80-yard touchdown strike to Marquis Taylor as the first quarter buzzer sounded. But perhaps his most impressive looking throw was a beautifully tossed fade pattern to the right corner of the end zone later in the first half for a score. Williams has the potential to make all the throws. He has the wheels to break contain when needed, and from the looks of things, the intangibles are there that should help Williams grow into the undisputed leader of this team as the season progresses.
Both teams will have another week to iron out the kinks before opening the season on Friday August 28. Drew will travel to face what should be a much improved Fayette County squad, and Lovejoy will play