Woodland began the season with a new coach — Bartow County’s first coaching change since 2009 — with an offensive scheme that was 180 degrees away from the Wildcats’ previous one.
The county’s lone playoff team in 2010, Cartersville, was trying to prove that it could make a legitimate playoff return and possibly topple region rival Allatoona in the process.
Furthermore, a senior-laden Adairsville team had its eyes set on breaking a long playoff drought at the school and were willing to do so at all costs.
Also bearing watching was how a Cass team would move into its next era after losing the bulk of its players and returning a county-low two starters.
The Tigers (10-2), behind an improved rushing attack and staunch defense, joined the Class AA playoff contingent for the first time under third-year coach Jim Kremer and for the first time since the 2003 season.
Coach Frank Barden’s Purple Hurricanes (5-5) weren’t far off from making the Class AAA playoffs themselves, but fell short of giving the county two playoff teams for the first time since 2006 — Cartersville, Cass — when they lost 21-14 to Dalton in a Region 7-AAA play-in game.
Woodland (4-6) got off to its best start in three years under first-year man Vince DiLorenzo — whose spread offense replaced former coach Steve Hamilton’s run-based T formation — but couldn’t sustain the momentum and lost three games by 8 points or less.
For the Colonels (0-10), 2011 always figured to be a rebuilding year for coach Rick Casko and his troops, many of which were in their first year as varsity starters. Cass probably never imagined a winless campaign — the first in Casko’s nine years as Colonels coach — but even toward the end of the season the team battled, almost upsetting Creekview in a 41-38 defeat.
These storylines made 2011 one to follow, but below are the players that made the year an exciting one to watch. They are members of The Daily Tribune News All-County Football Team.
QB R.J. Williams, Woodland — With a new coach and a new offense, the Wildcats needed an able hand to guide first-year coach Vince DiLorenzo’s spread offense — especially following the loss of last year’s all-county offensive player of the year and current Tuskegee University player Ashton Shelton. Much like Woodland’s former No. 5, the Wildcats’ current No. 5 was a game-changer at the most important position on the field, erupting for close to 600 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the first two games of the season — 39-26 and 55-23 wins over Cass and South Forsyth, respectively. Williams finished the season 134 of 233 for 1,770 yards passing with 19 touchdowns, a passer rating of 95. The junior signal-caller also had 683 yards rushing on 139 carries — a 4.9 yard average — adding seven more touchdowns on the ground. Williams’ numbers may have been better if not for injuries that caused him to miss parts of a few games following Woodland’s 2-0 start. A healthy Williams should give the Wildcats hope for just the second winning season in the program’s 15-year history this fall in Year 2 of the DiLorenzo era.
RB Mike Upshaw, Adairsville — The Tigers featured many important players on an offense that averaged 23 points per game, but the centerpiece of the offense was Upshaw. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound back topped the 100-yard mark eight times in 11 games, including 200-yard efforts against Armuchee and Model. After Adairsville’s first loss of the season at Pepperell in October, Upshaw helped the Tigers clinch the No. 2 seed in their sub-region, 7A-AA, rushing 66 times for 362 yards and four TDs in wins over Model and Rockmart. In a 24-14 victory at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe that clinched a playoff berth for Adairsville, Upshaw went for 117 yards rushing on 16 carries with two TDs. Though he possessed speed and strength prior to this season, coach Jim Kremer said during the season that Upshaw learned how to become a better football player as well as teammate in his final year for the Tigers. Upshaw, who scored in every game, finished the season with 1,590 yards rushing and 225 yards receiving, scoring 21 TDs.
RB Trey Gulledge, Adairsville — While Upshaw mixed things up between the tackles, Gulledge combined with his backfield mate to give the Tigers a potent inside-outside duo that accounted for 30 scores on the ground. Gulledge often came around end on the jet sweep to terrorize opposing defenses. The senior had 450 yards rushing with nine TDs and added 180 yards receiving. Gulledge even threw for a TD in Adairsville’s win over LFO. If that wasn’t enough, Gulledge also was a deadly return man, likely the best in the county. He reached paydirt four times on punt returns, including a career-best performance against Sonoraville where his 38- and 56-yard punt return TDs turned a 7-6 Phoenix lead into a 38-14 Tiger victory. Gulledge, who scored on a 4-yard run as well, would have had three punt return TDs but a 63-yard score in the first half was called back due an illegal block.
WR Christian Howell, Adairsville — Even with a respected and dangerous rushing attack, the Tigers still needed to offset that ability with a passing game capable of capitalizing on the defense’s intent on getting in the backfield. Adairsville struck that balance when it needed to, hitting a handful of big plays in the passing game each week. Howell, a 6-4, 190-pound senior, had ideal size and presented a big target for quarterback Cody Kremer. Howell had the second-most yards receiving in the county with 450 and scored two TDs, including one in the Tigers’ game with LFO.
WR Xavier Niblet, Woodland — DiLorenzo did a more than adequate job of mining the talent in a very good Wildcats basketball program, which helped unearth the 6-foot-5 Niblet. The senior receiver finished second in receptions in the county. With his size, Niblet flourished as a possession receiver, hauling in 32 grabs for 375 yards — an average of 11.7 — and scoring four TDs. Niblet’s biggest game came against Creekview in a 43-35 loss, where he gained close to 150 yards on a few catches, including a 73-yard reception and a 28-yard TD catch.
ATH Kelin Wells, Cass — When you have a player as dynamic and nifty as Wells, you do everything possible to get him the ball and coach Rick Casko, also the team’s offensive coordinator, tried the 5-foot-9 Wells everywhere from running back to wide receiver to kick returner. The result was a sensational sophomore season for Wells who scored six TDs — including one on a 90-yard kick return. He also scored three times from the backfield, where he rushed for 394 yards, and twice in the passing game, where he accumulated 559 yards receiving. Wells’ best rushing game came against South Forsyth (17-157), and his best receiving effort against Woodland (6-99). The two-way player also started for the Colonels as defensive back, recording 36 tackles.
OL Clint Lemon, Woodland — Lemon had about as solid a season as one could hope for from a lineman. The senior played every snap of every game and graded out pretty high — Lemon finished the year with a 91 percent grade. Lemon also played on the defensive line, where he had 27 tackles, one forced fumble and 1 1/2 sacks. Lemon has signed to play at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky.
OL Cody Baker, Adairsville — The Tigers’ talented backfield probably owes its hogs in the trenches a few steak dinners or two. Baker, a 6-2, 295-pound senior, helped pave the way for Upshaw and Gulledge and the rest of the Adairsville offense. Baker recorded team-highs with an 85 percent grade and 28 pancakes.
OL Ryan Hightower, Adairsville — Another of the Tigers’ sturdy lineman, the 6-2, 255-pound Hightower finished just behind his teammate in key offensive line categories. Hightower completed the season with an 84 percent grade and pummeled opponents to the tune of 21 pancakes.
OL Trey White, Cass — Definitely undersized (5-9, 190) but certainly not overmatched, White managed to earn an 80-plus percent grade and was the Colonels’ best offensive lineman. Despite being undersized, White had a productive senior season because, as his coach attested to, he had a big heart and gave great effort. He also played linebacker for Cass.
OL Caleb Privette, Cartersville — After a truncated junior season, Privette battled back from a foot injury to compete in all 10 games as a senior. Privette was the best lineman on a senior-laden line and had a good year protecting and opening holes for a mostly young group of skill players.
K Preston Slemp, Cartersville — Though not as ballyhooed as fellow special teamer and punter Collin Barber, a University of Georgia signee, Slemp quietly delivered a great season for the Canes as he converted 8 of 10 field goals, with a long of 46 yards — which came twice in a 3-for-3 performance in a 30-0 victory against Pickens. Slemp also made 24 of 25 PATs and kicked 14 touchbacks as a junior. Slemp, the 21st-ranked kicker in the country, figures to be one of the top kickers in the state as a senior.
DL Zach Coker, Adairsville — His physique (6-9, 230) may scream basketball player, but Coker’s impact this season clearly bellowed stalwart football player. Coker, a defensive end, led Adairsville linemen with 78 tackles, 13 for loss, and seven sacks. His tackles for loss and sacks were both second on the team. Also, in a game against Sonoraville, Coker stretched his lanky frame to block a punt. Coker, who has signed to play at the University of West Georgia, was one of the top players in the state chosen to take part in the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association North-South All-Star Football Classic in December.
DL Michael Hall, Adairsville — One of the better moments from each Tigers home game occurred whenever Hall’s number and name were called, prompting his band of supporters to lose their minds with unbridled passion. Those moments were definitely not few and far between. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound defensive end placed behind Coker in tackles (74) and sacks (six) amongst linemen. He had eight tackles for loss during the season.
DL Shelby Townsend, Woodland — An all-county defensive player as a junior, Townsend displayed consistency and earned his second all-county recognition by producing 56 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles — despite learning a new scheme under first-year Wildcats defensive coordinator Jeff Bullen. Townsend, a defensive end, helped improve a Woodland defense that gave up one fewer touchdown per game.
DL Devin O’Connor, Cartersville — O’Connor, a 6-3 defensive end, showed flashes of being a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen as a junior, but in his senior season No. 88 came through like never before, totaling 51 solo tackles, 32 assists, eight sacks (tops among defensive linemen in the county), nine tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, four batted passes, five hurries, and two fumble recoveries. O’Connor had an interception as well, which he returned 34 yards for the clinching touchdown in a 21-7, Thursday night win over Ringgold at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium.
DL Byron Davis, Cartersville — Davis, a junior, was a stronghold in the middle of the Canes’ defensive line. The two-year starter, a 7-AAA All-Region second-team selection, finished with 56 solo tackles, 38 assists, three sacks, six tackles for loss, one forced fumble, five hurries and two fumble recoveries. Even bigger things could be expected for Davis in his final season with Cartersville.
LB Austin Harrell, Adairsville — Harrell and his teammates, like Coker and Hall, often had a friendly competition going throughout the season where they would try to see who could be the first player into the backfield. With numbers that led the team, as well as the entire county, Harrell collected many victories in that area. The 6-2, 235-pound linebacker recorded 115 tackles, 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. Harrell has signed a scholarship to play next year at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
LB Ricky Beachum, Cartersville — Beachum had a fine year during the last season of his prep career. He registered 40 tackles, 28 assists, three sacks and seven tackles for loss.
DB Hayes Linn, Cartersville — A 7-AAA All-Region first-team pick — the only first-teamer from the Canes’ defense — Linn was perhaps his team’s biggest playmaker. He registered 68 solo tackles, with 26 assists, four tackles for loss, six pass breakups, one sack, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The junior also returned a 38-yard punt for a touchdown against Murray County, one of many big plays for Linn in a wonderful season. Linn was a stud for the Cartersville defense, coaches said, and was smart on the field and in the classroom — he’s an AP honor student — while leading a defense that gave up just 15 points per game.
DB Matthew Bryson, Cartersville — Bryson formed with Linn to give the Canes the best safety tandem in the county and possibly the region — both will be back for their senior years in 2012. Like his defensive backfield mate, Bryson also made the 7-AAA All-Region team, as a second-team selection. He ended the season with 43 solo tackles, 27 assists, three tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks and four pass breakups. Bryson also saw special teams duty as the team’s snapper on punts and extra points, and he had no bad snaps.
DB Trey Thompson, Woodland — An all-county selection as a junior, Thompson didn’t take a step back as a senior, draping receivers from his cornerback position while also displaying big-play ability as well as a propensity to block kicks. He ended his Wildcat football career by posting 39 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles, eight pass breakups, three fumble recoveries — one was returned for an 82-yard touchdown — four blocked field goals and three blocked extra points. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior has signed with Tusculum College, in Morristown, Tenn., where he will again team with his fraternal twin, Brandon.
DB Brandon Thompson, Woodland — Not part of the all-county defense a year ago, Thompson had just as strong of a season as his brother. A willing tackler with 61 tackles, he also added three interceptions, one fumble recovery — which was returned 85 yards for a score — and five pass breakups. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Thompson signed alongside his brother Trey to play at Tusculum, where he will man the safety position much like he has done in his Wildcat career.
P Collin Barber, Cartersville — Even with added attention and pressure following his commitment to the University of Georgia last summer — where he officially signed this month — Barber solidified his standing as one of the best punters in the nation, averaging 44.6 yards per punt and hitting three punts more than 65 yards — including a long of 68. Twelve of Barber’s punts were downed inside the 20-yard line and 82 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks. Against Allatoona, the 7-AAA All-Region first-teamer punted four times for 195 yards, an average of 48 yards. After the season, in the GACA all-star game in Columbus, Barber unleashed an 80-yard punt. The 5-star recruit, ranked No. 2 nationally, takes his punting prowess to Athens next season.
HONORABLE MENTION — Deo Adams, Woodland; T.J. Barden, Cartersville; Kadeem Buford, Cass; Josh Cooper, Cartersville; Josh Davis, Cartersville; Brandon Etheridge, Cass; Trey Graves, Cartersville; Deon Hardison, Cass; Kalin Heath, Cartersville; Cody Kremer, Adairsville; Ronnie Lafollette, Cass; Sawyer Landers, Cartersville; Mark Morton, Cass; Montavious Parker, Cass; Jake Powell, Adairsville; Justin Reed, Cass; Isaiah Ross, Woodland; Qua Stocks, Woodland; Twan Terrell, Woodland; Tyler Will, Cartersville; Elijah Windom, Cartersville.