Photo by Derrick Mahone
Coach Al Hughes enters his 12th season at the helm of the Lovejoy football. He says his team’s attention to detail and fundamentals will be the difference between good and great for the Wildcats.
When Lovejoy has the ball ...
Nothing’s changed from last year in terms of Lovejoy’s desire to pound the ball with star tailback Travis Custis. The 6-foot, 210-pound Georgia Tech commitment capitalized on stellar a junior season by rushing for 2,058 yards to go along with 37 total touchdowns. What has changed is the diversity of Lovejoy’s attack. With a year of experience under his belt, quarterback Alejandro Bennifield has truly become the field general for the Wildcats. Bennifield, a Tennessee-Chattanooga commitment, has passed for 2,395 yards and 28 touchdowns with just five interceptions. Wide receiver JuMichael Ramos and Auburn committed tight end Arshad Jackson help Lovejoy stretch the field in ways it couldn’t last season.
The Blue Devils are led by senior linebacker Tommy Tate (6-2, 220) with 170 tackles on the season and junior defensive end Lorenzo Carter (6-5, 221) who has notched 17 sacks. Norcross’ attacking defense tries to use its leanness and speed to beat ball carriers to the outside. The Blue Devils are giving up just 13.2 points a game, while playing in Region
7-AAAAAA that featured such perennial powers as North Gwinnett and Mill Creek. The Blue Devils defense posted a Week Two shutout of the Parkview squad that defeated what was considered the nation’s top-ranked team in Grayson at the time.
When Norcross has the ball ...
Ball hawking. Aggressive. Attacking. Ferocious. These are some of the words Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones likes to use to describe this version of the Wildcat defense. After posting eight shutouts and giving up a meager four points per game last year, it was hard to believe that this Lovejoy unit could be just as good. But with nose tackle Nathaniel Norwood and defensive end Zane Fields anchoring a solid pass rush, and late blooming cornerback Brandon Davis’ five interceptions returned for touchdowns, this group may have more playmakers than last year’s. The Wildcats like to live in the opponent’s backfield. Their 196 tackles for loss have resulted in an eye-popping 1,156 negative yards.
One name stands out — Alvin Kamara. The four-star recruit is considered one of the top running backs in the state. Kamara has 2,120 yards and 25 touchdowns on 269 carries. He has proven formidable as a pass catcher in the flat as well. Last week in Norcross’ 41-27 semifinal win over Colquitt County, Kamara scored on an electrifying 65-yard touchdown reception. But the Blue Devils’ offense isn’t just a one trick pony. Senior quarterback Joseph Wilber may be the most accurate passer Lovejoy will have faced this season. He’s thrown for 2,347 yards while completing 67 percent of his passes. His 27 touchdown tosses compare favorably to just five interceptions. Juniors Clinton Lynch, Myles Autry and senior Trey Smith combine for 105 catches, 1,931 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Al Hughes, Lovejoy
Hughes is the senior statesman of coaches in Clayton County. He has spent all 18 years of his head coaching career in Clayton, with his first stint at his alma mater Jonesboro from 1989-1993. Hughes has a career record of 109-80 and is 94-45 in his 12 years at Lovejoy, including five region titles. He notched his 100th career victory against Druid Hills on Sept. 28. Hughes’ Lovejoy squad is the first team in Clayton County history to make back-to-back trips to a state championship game. A win Saturday would give him his first state title as a coach.
Keith Maloof, Norcross
Keith Maloof comes from a coaching family. His father, George, was a long time coach at St. Pius X, while brother Kevin finished a 20-year tenure has head coach at Dacula. Keith Maloof is in his 14th year at the helm of the Norcross program where he holds a 107-48 mark. He is leading the Blue Devils to their first ever appearance in a state championship game. Before coming to Norcross, Maloof led two Tucker teams to playoff berths in three seasons. Like Hughes, Maloof is looking for his first state crown. He has a career record of 129-59.
Lovejoy wins if ...
the Wildcats can keep Kamara from running wild. One would think that a running back of his caliber will be able to get his fair share of yards. But the Wildcats cannot afford to give up the amount of yardage and big plays that they surrendered in last week’s 63-42 semifinal win against North Cobb. Hughes and several Lovejoy players admit that the big stage was a little much for them to handle last year in their Class AAAA title game loss to Tucker. The Wildcats won’t be intimidated by the setting this year, and, if they keep their focus, should be able to make enough plays to win.
Norcross wins if ...
it can avoid the 2011 Lovejoy syndrome. The Blue Devils, in their first ever title game appearance, are where Lovejoy was last year. If they can overcome championship game jitters and find ways to get Kamara into open space, Norcross will be able to score points. Tucker burned Lovejoy with its speed on the edges last year. Coach Maloof feels like his team can have success there as well. Also, stopping Custis is paramount. The senior went off for 290 yards last week against North Cobb. Norcross can’t afford to allow a repeat performance.