Canes kick off against quality Allatoona team

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It has been well-documented to this point that most of the Cartersville High football team's starters on its 2017 team have graduated.

What hasn't been discussed as much is that the Canes also have moved on from their murders' row schedule of the past two seasons.

There are no more games on ESPN against Class 7A Florida state finalist Bartram Trail, or perennial powerhouse Calhoun, or NFL-prospect factory Westlake — which was the non-region gamut Cartersville experienced last season.

Bartram Trail, Calhoun and Westlake have been replaced on the schedule by less daunting foes, at least on paper, Luella, McNair and Cherokee.

One thing that does remain the same in the non-region schedule is the Canes will kick off the season against upper-classification playoff mainstay and Acworth quasi-rival Allatoona.

The Buccaneers, who the Canes face tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Weinman Stadium in the season opener, are what's left of the former schedule when Cartersville participated in one of the marquee matchups in the state each and every week of non-region play.

With the less threatening schedule, Friday night's game against No. 6-ranked Allatoona should be one of the biggest tests of the early season. That's especially true for an inexperienced Canes group that hasn't had any live-action tests to this point, besides last week's scrimmage.

But don't expect Cartersville head coach Joey King to admit that the first one also is the biggest one. His patented company line — "It's the most important one because it's the next one" — has probably already echoed down U.S. Highway 41 to Acworth and back.

“It’s our toughest one this week,” King said of the Allatoona game. “We’ll have to see. They’re all going to be tough. A bunch of them will be different. Just the fact that [Allatoona is] a 6A opponent doesn’t make them a difficult opponent. It’s that they’re physical kids and they’re well-coached. In that regard, they are a very tough opponent.”

Adding to the excitement of the season opener against a quality team, there is a little bit of history between the two recent state champs, despite Cartersville comfortably beating the Bucs the past two seasons by an average margin of 18.5 points per game.

Prior to the most recent two games, Allatoona had gotten the better of Cartersville when the two schools were in the same region in 2010 and 2011. Allatoona won both of those games by scores of 18-13 and 10-0. In 2010, Allatoona’s win gave the Bucs the region championship as they finished undefeated in region play and Cartersville’s lone region loss came against Allatoona.

That 2010 season for Allatoona was the first year the Bucs made the state playoffs since the beginning of the football program in 2008. Allatoona has made the playoffs every year since, and won the state championship in Class 5A in 2015 after reaching the semifinals the year before. 

“Coach [Gary] Varner does a great job over there,” King said. “They won a state championship a couple of years ago. They won a track state championship. … They played for [the state baseball championship]. Those kids are used to winning over there in every sport."

Allatoona returns a junior quarterback, Dante Marshall, who showed flashes of his talent against Cartersville last year. The Bucs also return their top four receivers.

"They play a real physical brand of football," King said of Allatoona. "They’ll be pro-style. They’re going to run it and use the play-action pass. The quarterback does a really good job. He can beat you with his feet, he can throw it off the play-action. They’ve got a couple of running backs they can hand it to and a big tight end [Jaylan Williams] who sets the edge.”

Defensively, A.J. Thomas and Izaiah Taylor are two long senior cornerbacks with Division-I scholarship offers, comprising a strength for Allatoona on that side of the ball.

"On defense, they line up all over the place,” King said. “They base out of an odd stack, but they’ll give you a two-high look. They do a good job of mixing it up, so you can’t get an exact beat on what they’re trying to do up front.

"They lost some guys from last year’s team, but they kept some good ones. Their defensive line from last year was one of the best we saw all year. They have one or two who are back from that unit. They’re going to be really athletic. Out of our first few opponents, their secondary may be the most athletic. ... They’ve got some length on their defense."

While Allatoona's length and athleticism on defense and physicality on offense are its calling cards, Cartersville is still trying to find its own with a mere handful of returning starters. Several Canes will see their first meaningful varsity snaps, and Canes fans have had a long offseason waiting to see if the inexperienced group can uphold the standards set by recent teams.

King — featured in one of the school's highly popular hype videos that make the social-media rounds each week during football season — made it clear Thursday on the video that the expectations for the program have not changed.

"The same logo, same expectation," King said on the 14-second video. "Some people keep telling me that we are not as good this year. But guess what? I didn't get that memo."

— DTN staff reporter Nicholas Sullivan contributed to this report.