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Way too early Southern Crescent top five football teams

Photo by Jason Mussell / Dutchtown running back Malik Barkley has been offered by Ole Miss and is a key cog for the Bulldogs.

Photo by Jason Mussell / Dutchtown running back Malik Barkley has been offered by Ole Miss and is a key cog for the Bulldogs.

With state championship games marking the conclusion of another high school football season two weeks ago, what’s a high school football fan to do? Start thinking about next season, of course.

What’s that? You think it’s way too early for such predictions?

Well, you’re right.

In fact, that’s what we’ll call this. A way-too-early Southern Crescent top five poll — with a bonus darkhorse thrown in for good measure.

1. ELCA

The Chargers lose a lot thanks to graduation. Standouts Keyante Green, Isaac Rochell, D.J. Curl, Marquis Griffin and Tyler Petty just to name a few. But the pieces that are returning are enough to make ELCA fans dream of a state title repeat. ELCA’s Dalton Etheridge is a dual-threat quarterback who will return as a senior with more experience under his belt. This past season, he passed for 1,381 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for 772 yards and 19 touchdowns. During the Chargers’ playoff run, he started to gain some looks from colleges. He is also a standout on the school’s baseball team. Wide receiver Davis Carandi will become his favorite target after having a breakout season. And running back Lane Timpson was serviceable in relief of an oft-injured Green, who finished his career with 4,976 yards and 85 touchdowns. Defensively, Josh Shockley will be a year improved and freshman Chase Burdette looks like a rising star. Shockley, a junior, has been called the “glue that holds the defense together” by coach Jonathan Gess.

2. Stockbridge

If there were any doubts about the rise of the Tigers under coach Kevin Whitley after 2011 gave them their first playoff appearance, those doubts are now gone. Stockbridge lost its opening game 23-0 to M.L. King before ripping off 11 straight and advancing to the quarterfinals of the playoffs for the first time in school history. Along the way, the Tigers became the first Henry County team ever to defeat a Griffin Bears squad. And they did it at Griffin on a last-second field goal. Gone is quarterback Trenton Earl who was masterful in his handling of Whitley’s Wing-T offense. Earl accounted for 12 touchdowns, while throwing 134 passes without a single interception. That kind of leadership and steady hand is hard to replace. But with nine returnees on a defense that surrendered just 11 points a game, and six starters back on offense, including late-blooming running back Malik Bryan, look for Stockbridge to make another extended run into the postseason. And don’t be surprised to hear the phrase “state championship” bandied about as a goal for the Tigers.

3. Lovejoy

Lovejoy coach Al Hughes bristled a bit at the thought that the Wildcats can’t reload for a 2013 title run. “Our cupboard is not empty,” Hughes said a week after Lovejoy’s second straight appearance — and second consecutive loss — in a state-championship game. Lovejoy loses a host of star power on both sides of the ball. But one thing about Lovejoy is, after three straight region crowns and two near misses at back-to-back state titles, it has established itself as a rising Georgia power. Hughes will have speed galore, if not experience, returning at the skill position spots. Watch for wide receiver Preston Williams to have a breakout year. Three of the five starters on the offensive line will be back. And sophomore safety Montrell Custis — cousin of Travis — should continue his rapid maturation process. Montrell had 43 tackles and four interceptions last season. Linebacker DeMarquis Gates is expected to be one of the leaders in the upcoming season in hopes of replacing all-state performer Nathaniel Norwood.

4. Dutchtown

The Bulldogs got a lot of mileage out of Missouri commitment Donavahn Jones at quarterback over the last few years. And his absence will be felt. But two things Dutchtown has often had during Jason Galt’s tenure: a powerful running game and good special teams play. The new quarterback will operate behind a pretty experienced line with the return of juniors Jordan Anderson and Alan Sprenkle. Dependable running back Will Smith will have graduated, but Malik Barkley, who will be a rising junior, looks to be every bit as talented, with perhaps a higher ceiling. Kicker Ryan Kangiser proved ultra steady as a field goal kicker and field-flipping punter. He’ll just be a junior next year. And senior-to-be wide receiver Rodel Shorter will be back, hoping to capitalize on a breakout season as Jones’ favorite target. Shorter snagged 50 balls for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. If the Bulldogs can find even just a game manager at quarterback, look for them to be in the thick of things come next November.

5. Mundy’s Mill

Coach Greg Manior had the Tigers believing in his first season coaching the team. After dropping their first four games — yet getting closer to victory in each — the Tigers finally broke through to win three of their next four, including a 32-31 upset over Drew. In the process, Mundy’s Mill may have found the Southern Crescent’s next emerging star in running back Rodney Smith. The all-region baseball standout turned heads by rushing for 1,575 yards and 18 touchdowns before tearing an ACL in the first half of Mundy’s Mill’s game against Ola. He had 196 yards on just nine carries against the Mustangs before getting hurt. A healthy Smith alone gives the Tigers a chance to play with anyone. But with the supporting cast around him growing up another year, Mundy’s Mill should be a more complete team in 2013. Manior is hopeful that sophomore Rodricous Gates will continue to mature into a leader to help take some pressure off of Smith. Last season, Gates passed for 950 yards and five touchdowns, but he threw nine interceptions.

Darkhorse: Drew

After a 7-4 playoff season in 2011, the Titans fell to a disappointing 6-4 this year, ending the regular season with a thud by losing 42-0 to Creekside and missing the playoffs. Quarterback Jay Murray is gone, but several backups look to pass the eye test as potential difference makers. A four-headed monster of tailbacks Marquis Terry, Tracy Gaston, Jordan Metts and Lester Knauls will all return for the Titans. Coach Jarrett Laws should have good athleticism on both sides of the ball. And if a serviceable signal caller is identified, then watch out for Drew to make noise in Region 4-AAAAA, Div. A.