STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — Year two was supposed to be easier for Steve Boyd.
Boyd, the former defensive coordinator for the Stockbridge Tigers, took the reins of the program last season after former coach Kevin Whitley ended his 10-year program rebuild to go coach cornerbacks at Georgia Southern.
Filling in for Whitley, itself, was a gargantuan task, given all that his former boss had accomplished, including nine winning seasons complete with nine trips to the state playoffs, seven 11-plus-win seasons and multiple semifinals appearances.
Boyd’s first season at the helm wasn’t a dud by any stretch, though. He guided the Tigers to an 8-3 showing in 2019, although they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Wayne County. But it was still enough to bring feelings of optimism for his second go-round at arguably Henry County’s most dominant public school football program.
Then came COVID-19—a phenomenon that initially seemed like a short-term nuisance before morphing into a long-term pandemic.
“We got derailed March 13th when we were told we’d be out of school for two weeks, and we never returned,” Boyd said. “So from then on, it’s definitely been interesting.”
“Interesting” is also the word Boyd used to describe a herky-jerky summer that featured coaches having to keep one eye on the progress and safety of their players and another eye on the GHSA’s decision making regarding whether or not football would continue.
But here we are with the season kicking off Friday night at 7:30 p.m. when Stockbridge hosts a Gainesville squad that finished 5-6 overall and 3-2 in Region 8-AAAAAA last year. But even that game being on the schedule is a sign of the offseason tumult. Southwest DeKalb was originally slated to kick off the 2020 season, but with DeKalb County Schools not starting fall athletics until October, that forced Stockbridge to make a last-minute change.
“We don’t know a whole lot about (Gainesville), except that from watching film, they’ve got their quarterback from last year returning, and as far as their offense goes, it’s the quarterback that makes them go,” Boyd said.
He’s talking about 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior, Gionni Williams—a guy who’s proven to be equally dangerous with his legs as with his arm. Boyd thinks the combination of Williams, a couple of stout tailbacks and a decent-sized offensive line could give Stockbridge’s front seven a stiff season-opening test.
Stockbridge has its own dual-threat guy behind center in Jaylen Jackson who looks to be the heir-apparent to the graduated Jevon McDonald as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He’s a guy who will likely play both sides of the ball for a Stockbridge program with smaller-than-typical numbers. He made several big plays from his safety spot during the 2019 season.
As far as season outlooks go, don’t ask Boyd to look too far into the future. In fact, the traditional coach speak rhetoric of “one game at a time” seems to be reality for everyone right now.
“How good are we going to be and how ready are we for this season,” Boyd asked with a chuckle. “That’s hard to predict for anybody right now. But you ask me what our season goals are, it’s simply to win the first game. We’re truly going to be week to week and hope to get better each time. I want to be able to say we’re better in Week 2 than we were in Week 1, and better in Week 3 than we were in Week 2.
“That’s really all you can ask for in this situation.”
Eyes on ELCA-Woodward Academy
Although the start of the season was pushed back a couple of weeks, with some school districts starting as late as October and others calling the fall sports season a wash altogether, the slate of games featuring South Metro squads is plenteous.
In addition to Stockbridge hosting Gainesville, many eyes will be watching a tussle between two programs at the top of their respective classifications when Woodard Academy travels to ELCA for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff. ELCA’s coming off its third straight Class A state crown, while Woodward’s only 2019 blemish was a 46-21 loss in the Class AAAA semifinal to eventual state champion, Blessed Trinity.
Since head coach Clifford Fedd arrived at Dutchtown after the 2016 season, the Bulldogs program has been trending upward from stalemate to championship contender. When Fedd trotted out his first team in 2017, the Dawgs saw the playoffs for the first time since Jason Galt’s 2010 squad went 11-2 and finished with a state quarterfinals appearance. What followed were a bunch of 6-4, 4-6 and 5-5 seasons, leaving fans frustrated at what, at times, felt like an underachieving program, given the talent present.
Fedd broke the playoff drought in 2017 after a 7-4 campaign. Dutchtown followed that up with 12-1 and 11-2 seasons in 2018 and 2019 respectively, each with quarterfinals playoff berths. It has some tabbing the Bulldogs as that “next team” to breakthrough as permanent in the South Metro area, particularly Henry County. And with a sizable glut of talent returning, the Class 5A No. 8 Bulldogs have a chance to make a huge statement when they travel to Class 6A No. 10 Lanier (Sugar Hill) tonight at 7:30 p.m.
The Battle of Jonesboro
Jonesboro coach Tim Floyd likes to call cross-town rival Mount Zion, “The School Around the Corner.” Mount Zion just likes the idea of beating Jonesboro. And because these players, parents and fans are in close proximity to each other, it makes for one of the area’s most natural rivalries.
Jonesboro has a 14-12 record against its intracity nemesis, and the Cardinals haven’t lost to Mount Zion since falling 37-13 to the Bulldogs back in 2009. When Jonesboro hit a stride of unprecedented success in the early 2010s, the games weren’t even close. But since the Cardinals squeaked out a 9-7 win in 2016, Mount Zion has been closing the gap, losing by just a point (14-13) in 2018 and by a field goal (15-12) in 2019.
Coach Floyd is one of the longest tenured coaches in the South Metro area, while James “Buster” Davis is entering his first year. Adding to the rivalry intrigue, this game looks to be a matchup of two young squads trying to get an early foothold on the new season.
Here’s a by-county list of the rest of this weekend’s football games with last season’s final records in parenthesis:
Clayton County Games
Jonesboro (5-6) vs. Mount Zion (3-8)
Forest Park (1-9) at Woodland
North Clayton (2-8) vs. Riverdale (7-4)
Morrow (6-5) at Cartersville (11-2)
Lovejoy (6-4) at Mundy’s Mill (5-5)
Drew (1-9) at Coffee (9-4)
Henry County Games
Strong Rock (2-8) at Bethlehem Christian Academy (1-10)
Eagle’s Landing (2-8) at Meadowcreek (3-8)
Gainesville (5-6) at Stockbridge (8-3)
Locust Grove (1-9) at McDonough (4-6)
Luella (4-7) at McIntosh (3-7)
Jackson (8-4) at Ola (7-4)
Hampton (5-6) at Union Grove (7-3)
Forest Park (1-9) at Woodland (1-9)
Dutchtown (11-2) at Lanier (10-2)
Georgia Military College Prep at Creekside Academy
South Fulton Games
South Atlanta (7-4) at Heard County (4-7)
Creekside (7-5) at Westlake (6-5) —Friday September 18