Top-ranked Canes face difficult challenge from Bucs

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Each of the past three years, Cartersville has defeated Allatoona to open the season. Every time, the margin of victory has grown. The pattern is unlikely to continue this season.

That’s not to say the Canes won’t pick up a road win, when they face the Buccaneers at 7:30 Friday night. It just seem like the contest with turn into another blowout.

The No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A, Cartersville enters as a 19-point favorite, per Maxwell Ratings projections, against Class 6A’s composite seventh-ranked team. But even though the Canes return a large segment of the squad that stunned the Bucs in a 35-0 win last season, most prognosticators would expect a much more competitive matchup this time around.

There’s a few reasons for that. First of all, it’s hard to know what to expect in the official debut for Cartersville head coach Conor Foster. Despite Foster having been with the program the previous five seasons as defensive coordinator, there’s always going to be some adjustments to make with a new leader taking over.

Even if the continuity is there for the Canes, the Bucs are a quality opponent with plenty of tradition that also happens to be playing at home. Allatoona finished 8-4 in 2018 with a second-round loss to Dacula in the state playoffs. Despite losing a lot of their rushing production from last year, the Bucs return plenty of key pieces on that side of the ball, including senior quarterback Dante Marshall.

"They're a tremendous program," Foster said. "Their coaching staff has had a lot of continuity. They do a great job.

“The offense is kind of old school. They get in the I-formation with a tight end and a fullback. You just don't see a lot of that. They present a unique challenge to us. They're very physical. They're smart. They're able to make adjustments, because they're so comfortable within their scheme. They have a lot of returning starters. Four offensive linemen return, the quarterback returns and they have a tailback who is a big recruit. They just have a talented bunch on offense."

The task gets even more difficult with Cartersville likely to have two of its top defensive players unavailable due to injury. Along with linebacker Harrison Allen and Marko Dudley, who both sat out last Friday’s scrimmage against Dalton, Foster said Jaylon Akins, who he referred to as a starting inside linebacker, sustained a shoulder injury in the scrimmage. The absence of Allen and Akins means Rashad Hurst and Gavin Geros should see a vast majority of the snaps in the middle of the Canes defense.

"We've still got a few guys banged up," Foster said. "We're going to air on the side of caution with them. We feel like they're making good progress, so we'll see at the end of the week. ... It's a long season, and in the end, playing a lot of people early is going to make us better anyways."

On the defensive side of the ball, Allatoona graduated a pair of stellar cornerbacks, but the Bucs' scheme combined with high-quality athletes should keep the team in most games. Cartersville returns its own share of offensive linemen along with senior quarterback Tee Webb. That doesn’t mean adjusting to Allatoona’s ever-changing alignment will be easy.

“They're pretty exotic,” Foster said. “They throw a lot of looks up front. They're in the 3-3 stack, and they just really mix up their pressure, mix up their movement. They don't get lined up the same way two plays in a row.

“From that standpoint, early in the year, it's tough on you offensively, because you haven't seen that many looks. Hopefully, we can slow it down and get comfortable quickly with what they're doing. ... They present a great challenge for us early on in the year."

Cartersville’s offense got off to a slow start against Dalton. Foster, though, didn’t seem overly concerned with the performance.

"I think it was typical early season stuff," he said. "Dalton does a great job. They have a great coaching staff, and they run a great scheme. They're big and physical, and they fly around. First of all, that's a credit to them and their program.

“Second of all, it's early, and we just missed some throws, when we had people open. Tee's going to make those throws. We believe in him. He's done it all offseason. He was just a little amped up for that first game. He was a little juiced up, and the ball was coming out hot. In the third quarter, he slowed it down and really played effectively."

To be fair, the Canes — like every team across the state — will believe they can and should get much better than how they looked in a preseason exhibition. Foster said he’s seen the early signs of his players learning from their mistakes, and he believes they can take the next step Friday night.

"Looking for better tackling, looking for better reads, defensively better fits, just attention to detail across the board," Foster said of his expectations. "On the offensive side, I think it's just about settling in. We've got a lot of talent on that side of the ball. We believe in our guys, and we believe in our scheme. We just need to slow down, take a deep breath, go out there and execute. We'll be just fine."