Canes take on McNair Friday at Weinman

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When Cartersville High head football coach Joey King discusses his team's upcoming opponent Friday night, McNair, one of the characteristics he mentions is the Mustangs play out of a four-man front on defense.

King said the defensive look, which the Canes haven't seen so far this season, will be good for his team to get reps against to prepare for the rest of the schedule.

Those are the kinds of things Cartersville can gain from a game like Friday's at Weinman Stadium, with the Class 4A, No. 2-ranked Canes coming in as heavy favorites against a Class 3A McNair team that's 2-0, but coming off a 3-7 season.

Such is the nature of midseason games for a team as strong as Cartersville, for which outcomes often take a back seat to improvement for a group with bigger goals.

However, King isn't letting his team take its eye off the ball.

"They're really athletic. They play fast. They play physical," he said of McNair. "They probably come off the ball harder than anybody we've played so far this year from what we've seen on film."

Cartersville bought out McNair, meaning the Canes will play both years of the cycle, 2018 and 2019, at Weinman Stadium. The Canes also bought out last week's opponent, Luella, which is why they have seven home games this year.

"To be honest, we were just looking for people to play," King said of scheduling McNair. "We wanted to get another home game, so I was looking for somebody who'd be interested in coming here two years in a row, and we found out their coach was looking for that situation."

McNair has gotten off to a 2-0 start this season with a 20-0 win over Towers and a 15-13 win over Redan, both Class 3A schools. The Mustangs also began last year 2-0 before losing seven of their last eight, although McNair is in Class 3A's toughest region alongside Cedar Grove, Pace Academy and Westminster. Last year was the ninth consecutive losing season for McNair and 10th consecutive without a playoff appearance.

The program did have some bright moments under coach Johnny Gilbert, who led the program to the playoffs four straight years with three playoff wins from 2001-2004, including a state quarterfinal appearance in Class 4A in 2002.

In 2005, with a new coach at the helm for the Mustangs, Cartersville knocked McNair out of the playoffs in the first round with a 31-13 final score at Weinman Stadium, the two programs' only meeting.

This year, McNair runs its offense primarily out of two-tight end formations with a fullback, although the Mustangs will mix it up and go spread at times.

"They're kind of multiple in what they try to do do," King said. "They're probably going to be a run-first offense."

King said McNair has two strong running backs who play both sides of the ball. Javon Yearby, No. 12, and Markell Sutton, 2, are two of the Mustangs' best athletes who play offense and defense for a smaller classification school that won't boast the same numbers on the roster as the Canes. King said Sutton's ability to win jump balls, both as a receiver and as a defensive back, stood out to him on tape. 

King added it has been hard to prepare for the opponent this week because McNair does not have much clear film available.

"We can't tell numbers. It's hard to see," he said. "We've worked pretty hard, done our research and come up with the best plan we can come up with."

King said the injury report is clean and the position battles have been pretty much settled at this point, although players are still rolling in at receiver and in the defensive backfield to keep fresh. Some of the Canes' backups at skill positions are also key starters on defense, which can make juggling substitutions hard when games get out of hand like it did last week against Luella. 

The substitution quandary is no more apparent than at the second-string running back and quarterback positions. Sophomore Harrison Allen is a starting middle linebacker, but also Marcus Gary's backup running back. Similarly, sophomore Evan Slocum is Tee Webb's backup quarterback, but also a starting safety. Add in the GHSA's rule that players can't play more than six quarters a week between JV and varsity, and King and his staff have to put the puzzle together each week when the scores get lopsided enough to start emptying the benches.

"That's the problem we got into last week. We got such a lead so early, but you have to be careful with those JV quarters. You play all those guys in the second, third and fourth quarters, then they only get three quarters on Thursday because you only get six a week. So there's a balance there," King said. "But, Harrison, we roll him in some in the first half. And then, late in the game, him or [sophomore running back Quante Jennings] depending on how tired [Allen] is. With Evan, you get in a bind because if you get too much of a lead, you don't want to put your starting safety in there [at quarterback].

"That's what practice is for, getting [Slocum] some live looks against some live bodies, as opposed to it being 55-3 and we stick our starting safety in there and he's got a chance to get hurt. Thats definitely something we try to avoid."

With Cartersville 57-point favorites, according to CalPreps.com's computer simulation, there's a good chance Friday's game will be another where the coaches are presented with the same problem. MaxPreps' computer rankings has McNair 309th across all classifications in the state, while Cartersville is 18th. The Canes also are one of just eight teams in the state that haven't allowed a touchdown so far this season, and McNair had trouble scoring a times last year, averaging just 11 points per game.

If the predictable outcome comes to fruition, Cartersville will have its 41st consecutive regular-season win.

Of course, King won't complain if the Canes have another game like last week's 55-3 rout of Luella. The focus in practice this week has been on building depth and getting some of the younger players ready to contribute on Friday nights.

"We're still playing a lot of guys, trying to get people mentally ready to play," King said. "We feel, as a team, we have to continue to get our depth mentally ready to play, not just our 1s. That's going to pay dividends for our program down the road. It may be the playoffs, it may be next season before we see some of the results of that, but we're going to go ahead and start planting those seeds and, hopefully, it'll pay off for us eventually."