Canes host familiar Catamounts in preseason scrimmage

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Separated by roughly 50 miles, Cartersville and Dalton are home to two of the premier football programs in Northwest Georgia, having combined for 42 region championships and five state titles across a combined 200 seasons.

It makes sense then that the Canes and Catamounts have been meeting regularly in hopes of preparing themselves for the rigors of Georgia high school football. The teams met last year in a preseason scrimmage in Whitfield County, saw each other multiple times during the offseason and will meet again at 7:30 p.m. Friday inside Weinman Stadium.

This year's scrimmage will also mark the first time Cartersville takes the field with Conor Foster as the team's head coach. A defensive coordinator under previous head coach Joey King, Foster will remain in charge of the defense. It will also be the Canes' first game with Dusty Phillips and Reggie Perkins as co-offensive coordinators.

King, who also served as OC during his tenure, led Cartersville to three state championship game appearances in his final four years. The Canes won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016, and the program finished runner-up last season.

While many people will be wondering how the new coaching dynamics will work, Foster doesn't seem the least bit concerned.

"That part of it certainly is intriguing, maybe more so for the fans than for us," he said. "Everybody is comfortable with their role; everybody understands their role."

However, Foster is interested to see how his players fare in a Friday Night Lights environment.

"When you put the pads on with fans in the stands, it's going to be a little bit different for everyone involved," Foster said. "I'm looking to see how the young guys respond and looking for some growth out of our returning starters."

Unlike last season, Cartersville will be returning plenty of experience in 2019. Against Dalton last August, many Canes were getting their first taste of starting a varsity game.

That won't be the case this time around.

There are still a few positions with question marks, particularly on the defensive side. The departures of Bobby Harris and Isaiah Chaney along the D-line and the losses of Sunni Moorehead and Tristan Carlton at linebacker will be the toughest holes to fill.

"We've got some new faces on the defensive front," Foster said. "Inside linebacker and defensive end will be places where we'll rotate some bodies and see who's ready to respond there. Those are positions where we're looking to build depth. On the offensive side, you'll see a lot of guys rotating in at wide receiver and tight end.

"We have a few places where we have some position battles that are really heated. That's a good thing. I think kids are hungry to play."

The newbies will face a tough matchup Friday. Dalton finished 6-4 overall in 2018, and the Catamounts enter this season ranked No. 14 in Class 6A by Maxwell Ratings.

While boasting plenty of returning starters certainly helps, Dalton's 2019 prospects will rest mostly on the shoulders of standout running back Jahmyr Gibbs.

The senior starred against Cartersville last year before absolutely blowing up on the recruiting trail later in the season. Gibbs verbally committed to Georgia Tech this spring after racking up nearly 1,900 total yards and 22 touchdowns in just eight games as a junior.

"He's a great challenge," Foster said of Gibbs. "Excellent lateral quickness, top-end speed and he's probably put on 20 pounds since last year. We saw him a couple of times this summer, and he's thickened up but hasn't lost a step. He's very impressive, seems like a great young man and a hard worker. Our kids will be ready for that challenge. I think it gets them excited."

Cartersville will need to get used to seeing high-level competition with some of the teams the Canes are scheduled to face this year. Dalton provides the perfect appetizer.

"I feel like we've had a great offseason, great spring, great summer," Foster said Monday. "There's still work to be done to prepare for Dalton. I think our kids are excited to go out and play somebody else. Certainly a great program like Dalton will be a handful. I'm excited to see how our kids kind of react to it."