By Gabriel Stovall
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — Marcell Gleaton walks around the practice field at Community Christian as if he owns the place — and in a sense, he does.
Not many players of Gleaton’s caliber can say they are homegrown Community Christian products. At 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, he looks the part of a potential Division I wide receiver. With a recent commitment to the Naval Academy under his belt, amid other Division I football offers, he also has tangible proof that he can play the part as well.
In fact Gleaton will be the first ever Knight to receive a scholarship to a Division I school. And that’s a testament to how far this program — now in its seventh year under the guidance of head coach Adam Collins, and ranked No. 2 in MaxPreps’ Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Associatio
n (GICAA) poll — has come.
“I’m so proud of where we are, and especially of Marcell,” Collins said. “I always say that when you’re able to go to the SEC schools and play, it says a lot about you as a football player. But to go to the Naval Academy because they want you there, that says a lot about you as a man.”
It also speaks volumes that Gleaton has been playing football at the small private school since the sixth grade. He’s had a front row seat to witness the maturation of Community Christian football, and despite some difficulties, Gleaton said he has enjoyed the view.
“I remember playing in my ninth grade year when we barely won,” Gleaton said. “We struggled to win three games. We had a bunch of talented skill guys, but everybody wanted it for themselves. They didn’t care about nothing from a team perspective. That’s the biggest difference I see between then and now.”
Now, Community Christian is sitting at 4-0 ahead of Friday night’s showdown with third-ranked Creekside Christian Academy from right down the road in McDonough. This after coming off a 7-3 season despite being plagued with a few injuries.
Now, the Knights also have upper echelon talent not always seen in the GICAA ranks, thanks to a couple of former GHSA players in quarterback Ashton Hughes and fellow wideout Demarion “Pepe” Williams. Hughes is in his second year at Community Christian after transferring from current Class AAAAA No. 1 Stockbridge, while Williams came over from Class AAAAAA Lovejoy during the offseason.
In addition, Collins added former Lovejoy offensive coordinator Craig Chatman to his coaching staff during the offseason. Chatman recently had a short stint as head coach at Lithia Springs High School in Douglas County. Before that, he was the offensive guru at Lovejoy back when the Wildcats were back-to-back state runners up during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
And Gleaton says the change these “big school” additions have made on the Knights is unmistakable.
“Oh, it’s made a big difference,” Gleaton said. “We’ve improved each year that I’ve been playing, but when Ashton (Hughes) got here at quarterback, just from a receiver standpoint, things just got so much better.”
Hughes himself has no problem admitting the kind of attitude he’s tried to bring to the Knights.
“I mean, coming from public school, there’s more of a dog mentality,” Hughes said. “So me and Pepe (Williams) try to come with more of that dog mentality and bring it here every single day. We try to teach these guys that it’s more than just throwing a football around out here. It’s a dog mentality. You have to be aggressive and bring it daily.”
“It’s definitely different out here than it is at a place like Lovejoy,” he said. “In those bigger GHSA schools, it’s a faster tempo, you know. More numbers on the field, and we don’t have to play both ways if we don’t want to. But I like how I fit in over here too. They go hard out here every day.”
Gleaton, Hughes and Williams also hope their time at Community Christian will help dispel the myth that a player who wants to play college ball can’t do it from a smaller, non-GHSA school.
Gleaton picked Navy over Gardner Webb and Western Carolina. Meanwhile, Hughes has received offers from Kentucky Christian and Concordia University (Michigan), with visits set up at Kennesaw State, Stetson, The Citadel and South Carolina State.
Williams hasn’t received as much attention yet, but he said he knows it will come as he continues putting his best self on the field each week.
“Coaches are telling me they like me, but they’re just not pulling the trigger right now,” he said. “But I’ll be patient. I’m staying humble. If I keep doing what I gotta do to prove myself and bring a championship to my team, coaches will take notice and things will be fine.”
Both Gleaton and Williams say having Hughes at quarterback is a blessing for their aspiring careers. As far as receivers go, Gleaton’s season has gotten off to an especially strong start, as he’s caught 10 balls for 187 yards and two touchdowns through four games in this newfangled offense.
But because of the lower numbers — Maxpreps.com shows only 27 players on the Community Christian roster — all three of them — even the signal caller — have to play both sides of the ball. Hughes anchors the front seven at middle linebacker, and he says it actually helps the way he plays quarterback.
“Being that middle linebacker, I know what they’re doing on defense all the time,” he said. “As a quarterback, me playing defense makes it easy to know how to position my offense. When I’m under center and I see someone running a cover two or cover three, physically I know how to position our offense. I’ve been in that situation and know what they’re going to do.”
Don’t get it twisted, though. Hughes is excelling big time as the Knight’s undisputed signal caller. Through four games he’s completed 38 of his 68 pass attempts (56 percent) for 710 yards with seven touchdown passes to only three interceptions. His success is no surprise to Collins.
“Because we’re throwing the ball more, Ashton’s just a better fit for quarterback than what we’ve had in a while,” Collins said. “He’s very studious as far as film goes. He knows what’s going on. He’s got his footwork right this year. If not for the footwork he’d have been the guy last year. As far as throwing the ball, he’s it.”
The trio of Gleaton, Hughes and Williams know that they aren’t the only ones powering Community Christian hot start this season.
“We’ve got skill guys after skill guys after skill guys coming on the field,” Hughes said. “When I tell you we’ve got talent everywhere, like if Pepe goes down or something like that, I mean, we’ve got guys that can come in and do the same things the rest of us can do.”
And for that reason, the three seniors didn’t hold their tongues when expressing their team’s ultimate potential. When asked how good this year’s team could be, all of three of them answered in concert as if they’d rehearsed it.
“State championship. A ring,” each said almost simultaneously. And then Hughes elaborated.
“Ain’t no getting to the playoffs and lose,” he said. “We’re trying to go to state and win. We’ve got too many weapons.”
Said Williams: “When we throw to (Marcell) they start to fear him and it leaves me open. When they take me or other receivers away we’ve got backs like Isaiah (Nelson). They can’t cover everything.”
Apparently the confidence on this squad trickles down from the top. Collins said this team looks similar to his 2-8 squad a couple of years ago — the same one Gleaton referenced — that had all the ability in the world, but couldn’t get the chemistry part right.
But this bunch trumps them by a lot, Collins said.
“This group would destroy that group,” he said.
Which is why even he won’t engage in the coachspeak when talking about how good this year’s team can be.
“If we’ll cut out the silly stuff, silly mistakes, penalties and brain farts, the sky is the limit for us,” Collins said. “This is the most talented group skill wise we’ve ever had. If we play together nobody can touch us. We’ll be hard to beat.”