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No clear favorite in Class AA in 2020

 

The AA SCHSL Classification Wide Open

By David Shelton

Senior Writer

Moncks Corner – Due to losses in personnel and the most recent reclassification of schools by the S.C. High School League, the battle for the 2020 Class AA state football championship is more wide open than ever before.

Abbeville saw its bid for a fifth consecutive state title ended in the Upper State title game last November by a red hot Saluda team that went on to whip Barnwell in the championship game. All three of those powerhouse teams lost a great deal of experience and talent off their respective rosters.

Abbeville, being Abbeville, will likely still have a team that can make a run at the state championship. Another team that bears watching is Phil Strickland’s squad at Newberry, having dropped down from Class AAA.

Two teams in the Upper State that had great seasons in 2019 are Andrew Jackson and St. Joseph’s Catholic of Greenville. Andrew Jackson won 10 games last fall while St. Joe’s had an 11-win season. It will be interesting to see if those programs can sustain the success in 2020.

Gray Collegiate lost two excellent players in quarterback Hunter Helms and receiver Omar Dollison but do return a dynamic running back in KZ Adams.

Chesnee and Legion Collegiate out of region two could be state title contenders as well.

Timberland and Woodland also should have strong teams though each will need development in key areas during the shortened regular season.

Here’s how each region in AA will breakdown this fall.

 

Region 1-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Abbeville
  2. Ninety Six
  3. Christ Church
  4. Crescent
  5. Liberty

 

It’s still all about the “A” when it comes to AA football in the Upper State. Abbeville has lost only five games since 2015 and despite heavy losses to graduation, the Panthers look to be the class of region one.

Coach Jamie Nickles has concerns along the offensive and defensive lines as the season begins. Both units were depleted by graduation, losing several players that were two and three-year starters.

“To be honest, we really don’t know much about ourselves at this point,” said Nickles, who is entering his 17th season at the helm. “We lost some really good players but we do return some good players. But we lost more than we have coming back. I think we will know a lot more about this group once we get into the season a little. Some new guys will have to get ready and produce in a hurry.”

Senior Thomas Beauford will provide a steady hand at quarterback for the Panthers. Beauford saw plenty of action last season and gives the offense a dual threat potential.

Senior Davis Sutherland is the lone returning starter along the offensive line. However, Navi Marshall, Ty Haddon and Tico Jackson are returning backs with experience.

The defense is led by senior linebacker Cruz Temple, an East Carolina commit. Senior Luke Evans also has some experience at linebacker. The secondary is led by Jeremiah Lomax and CJ Vance, both juniors.

Ninety Six finished 4-7 a year ago but return quarterback Matt Deal. Michael Cato returns as a running back and linebacker.

Christ Church also was 4-7 last year and Quin Hatfield is the third head coach in three years. Three-year starting quarterback Ryan Johnsen will be the leader offensively this fall and has solid skill people around him. Locke Swent is a two-way performer at running back and linebacker and Grayson Klue returns as a running back.

Up front are three returning starters – Will Jones, Mac Ridgeway and Constantine Gaddis.

Linebacker Mason Goldsmith will be a leader defensively, along with defensive backs Harrison Horton, Smith Sanford and Harris Houser. Returning up front are Chandler McMaster and Will Jones.

Crescent looks to improve on last year’s 2-8 record as former Tiger Sheldon Evans begins his third season as head coach.

Junior Kayden Sauers (6-6, 225) looks to control and lead the offense at quarterback. Brother Landon Sauers (6-4 230), a senior, will be counted on at tight end and linebacker. Clay Rebrick is a returner at running back and senior Moses Kemp will be a threat at receiver and safety. Sophomore Elijah Richey had 63 tackles as an outside linebacker last season.

Liberty posted a 3-8 record last fall under coach Kyle Stewart. Senior quarterback Elijah Stafford is a big returner on offense. Stafford threw for nearly 1,000 yards last season. Running back Shaimaire Jamison rushed for 402 yards and will also work at corner on defense.

Junior Alex Riddle will be a factor at receiver and safety and 6-4 Aaron Spruill could be a deep threat in the passing game. Another key leader defensively will be linebacker Landon Ziegler.

Returning up front are CJ Fowler, Brandon Carver and Carter Ramey.

 

Region 2-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Chesnee
  2. Legion Collegiate
  3. St. Joseph’s
  4. Blacksburg
  5. Landrum

Chesnee finished 5-7 a year ago, their first under head coach Clay Lewis, but the Eagles were a much better team near the end of the season. That success looks to carry over this season as several key players return.

The offensive line looks to be a strength with experience back in Caleb Rentz, Jacob Ingle, Luke Pearson and Brady Scruggs. Running back Camden Burns will benefit from the guys up front, as will running back Bryson Thompson. Nyquille Fair returns with experience at quarterback and will work in the secondary as well.

Cole Hoskyns will contribute at tight end and defensive end and Colby Davis returns at defensive end as well. Look for Brandon Mills and Grant Webb to lead at linebacker and Lorenzo Duren is a leader in the secondary.

Chesnee opens the season against Legion Collegiate in a crucial early region game.

Legion Collegiate begins year two of their program under coach Strait Herron. The Lancers finished 7-1 last season against a mixed schedule. Playing for a title this season has enhanced the excitement in the program.

Herron has 15 returning starters this fall. Junior Joey Hylinski will be back at quarterback, along with a pair of explosive receivers in Donaven Pittman and Vic Lindsay.

Senior Thomas Neff returns as a running back but may end up more on defense at linebacker, making way for transfer Zion Rasheed.

Junior Parker Prevette and senior Marshall Stafford lead four returning starters along the offensive line.

Anchoring the defense are returning seniors Nate Kelly and Ibn White, an end and tackle, respectively. Skyler Woodard is a returner in the secondary.

Jon Wheeler guided St. Joseph’s to an 11-2 record last season. There are some holes to fill but the Knights also have some key leaders returning. Expect linebacker Mark Lyons, defensive backs Kyle Lonergan and Chris Johnson, and end KJ Haynes to lead the way defensively.

Junior KD Boyd returns as a weapon in the running game. Christian Jimenez will be a leader along the trenches.

The well-traveled Jet Turner is the new head coach at Blacksburg. Turner has had success at numerous programs around the state at all levels and looks to bring his double-wing magic to Blacksburg.

The coach will have good senior leadership at quarterback as Zac Painter returns. Running back Jeremiah Foster (6-0, 220) returns in the backfield and also at linebacker. Malachi Tate (6-3, 180) will be a factor at safety on defense. Two returning linemen include Chris Smarr and Matt Davis.

Landrum won four non-region games a year ago but failed to win a league game. Quarterback Cooper Gentry will lead Jason Farmer’s offense, with receivers Bobby Dodd and Payton Atkins providing quality hands in the passing game. Atkins and Patrick Clark are returners in the secondary. Returning linemen include Ronnie Belue and Ethan Dugat but the Cardinals return only eight total starters.

 

Region 3-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Cheraw
  2. Buford
  3. Central
  4. Andrew Jackson
  5. Chesterfield
  6. North Central

Even with a full schedule, region three would be difficult to predict. With the shortened schedule, throw the teams into a hat and take your best shot.

Cheraw returns the most experienced quarterback, senior Tyson Hall, so the Braves get the nod. Cheraw finished 8-5 a year ago with Hall throwing for nearly 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. The receivers will be less experienced but the Braves should be athletic enough to produce in the passing game.

Zion Baylor is the top returning rusher with 617 yards. Junior Damarion McCaskill should be a factor in the running game and will see time defensively as well. Nazae Williams (6-4 280) will anchor the offensive line while Tramar McFarland returns with experience on both lines.

Tymell Stacks had 56 tackles at end last season and middle linebacker Jadon Scott had 93 total tackles. Devin Gillespie, a junior safety, had four interceptions in 2019.

Andrew Jackson’s 10-win season was the best in two decades at the school. Coach Todd Shigley must replace a large senior class but returns some quality. Senior receiver OJ White caught 62 passes for 935 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He will, however, have a new quarterback delivering the throws as senior Bryce Helms takes over. DJ Ealey also returns at receiver and senior Aidan Hinson will be the top back returning.

Senior center Gavin Phillips will lead the offensive line while Trey Watts leads the defensive front. Jaciahis Elder and Mikeem McClain return at linebacker, while Darius Brice returns at corner.

The Eagles of Central look to better last year’s five-win total under coach Trent Usher. Sophomore Daniel Leaird will take over at quarterback with veteran running back Leon Clark and Jacob Jordan shouldering the load in the run game. Top receiver Ron Benjamin returns for his senior season.

Back along the front offensively are Drew Atkinson and Braden Crawford. Oscar Moore and Christian Bracey return along the defensive line. Tyreick McBride returns in the secondary.

Buford is coming off a region championship season in 2019, finishing with nine wins under coach Tripp Watts. Buford returns 14 starters but will be going with a first-year quarterback in sophomore Brody Sanders.

Senior Tyler Vespe returns as a halfback while seniors Evan Teague, Devin Jenkins and Dylan Jenkins return at receiver, along with tight end Logan Whitaker.

Along the offensive front is one senior, guard Tucker Sellers, with four sophomores – center Logan Brown, guard Justin Pardue, and tackles Justin Ellis and Hunter Almond.

Junior Josh Rieblin returns at one defensive tackle. Whitaker is a returning linebacker, as is Vespe. Returning in the secondary are Teague, Jenkins and sophomore Jamari Hough.

Jonathan Eason is the new head coach at Chesterfield this fall. Eason spent the last four seasons at Spartanburg High.

Kevin Diggs is moving from receiver to quarterback this season and has returning senior Jalen Thompson, who caught 32 passes a year ago. Josh Adams is moving from quarterback to receiver.

Four starters return along the offensive line and all will be underclassmen. The unit is led by juniors Michael Crawford, Tucker Jenkins and Myshaun Frink.

Junior Tymarion Melton is a key returner along the defensive front. Jody Sellers returns at linebacker after leading the Rams with 88 tackles last season. Cam Little returns at inside linebacker and NuNu Brown is a returner at corner.

Chesterfield will open the season against North Central. The Knights were 3-7 a year ago under coach Tyrone Drakeford, a former all-state performer from the program.

Senior running back Kaleb Haven, and senior receivers Antonio Sowell and Jaheim Jones will be key playmakers offensively for the Knights.

Returning linemen on offense include Tim Staggers, Dylan Sims and Bobby Gregory. Top returners defensively will include noseguard Dartanyon Drakeford and linebacker Jesse Wyant.

 

Region 4-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Newberry
  2. Gray Collegiate
  3. Batesburg-Leesville
  4. Saluda
  5. Columbia
  6. Eau Claire

Newberry spent the last few years in Class AAA and is back in AA. Coach Phil Strickland enters his 34th season as a head coach and his 11th at Newberry with 328 career coaching victories. His 2020 Bulldogs will add significantly to that total.

Newberry was 8-5 last year, three wins better than 2018. This year’s team returns two quality receivers in Zack Chalmers and Kiyjuan Crooks, with a solid quarterback in Zysheim Epps to deliver the ball. Always a threat in the running game, Craig Austin and KJ Robinson will tote the mail often this fall.

Leaders on the defense will include KJ Gary, TJ Gallman and Cam Grier up front, and OT Sims in the secondary.

Gray Collegiate will have to find replacements for all-state quarterback Hunter Helms (now at Clemson) and all-state receiver Omar Dollison (now at South Florida) but coach Adam Holmes will find ways to be successful offensively.

Junior running back KZ Adams will be one of the more dynamic athletes in the state. Adams rushed for 1,631 yards and 28 touchdowns as a sophomore.

Junior Tre Robinson (6-2, 180) inherits the role at quarterback after transferring from Batesburg-Leesville. Nykeem Smith, a 6-5 receiver, caught 27 passes a year ago and will increase his role this fall.

Two seniors return along the offensive line in Eli Young and Chaz Adams.

Senior defensive end Kamarre Johnson (6-2, 225) was an all-region selection last year. He is one of seven returning starters on that side of the ball. Junior linebacker Zach Glenn (6-1, 215) missed most of last year with an injury but returned late and was a force. He will be joined by senior Callen Begley (6-2, 205) and sophomore Jordan Robinson (6-2, 215).

Safety Chris Rhone (6-3, 215) anchors the secondary.

Batesburg-Leesville and Saluda will certainly contend for one of the top two spots in the competitive league.

Batesburg-Leesville returns running back Marvin Gantt, a 1,000-yardr rusher last season, to anchor the offense this season. He is joined by Amah-Dre Leaphart in the backfield while first-year starter Tee Williams is learning the rope at quarterback.

Anchoring the offensive line are Derby Thompkins and Chris Anders.

Chris Whitt returns as the leader on the defensive front. Returning at linebacker are Jahmad Barr-Williams and Matt Boozer, while Damazhay Long returns in the secondary.

Saluda lost major firepower and production from their 12-3 state championship season. The top returner offensively is junior Montrevious Baker, who led the team in rushing with just under 1,000 yards last season. Baker likely will move to quarterback this fall.

Jabari Baker is returning at receiver with playing experience. On defense, the most experienced players will be tackle Simeon Abney, Jakari Davis and corner Ja Stevens.

Columbia and Eau Claire each managed only one victory last season.

Columbia returns running backs Charles Morgan and Taiveon Lewis at running back and senior Makaio Mings along the offensive line. Defensive leaders may include ends Omari Mills and Nigel Davis, tackle Kobe Wright, and linebacker Jani Broadnax.

At Eau Claire, linebacker Marcus Elkins-Gilmore and Antonio Trejo have experience. Alex Thompson is working at defensive end and Ny’cere Riley is in the secondary and could be the starting quarterback.

 

Region 5-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Barnwell
  2. Wade Hampton
  3. Edisto
  4. Silver Bluff
  5. Pelion

Despite major losses in production and experience, the Barnwell Warhorses return enough talent to again win a region title. The program has won back-to-back AA Lower State championships and finished 14-1 last season.

“We have excellent players coming back who have been in the battles and know what it takes to play at a high level,” says head coach Dwayne Garrick.

Offensively, the strength returns at receiver in T.J. Miller and Marcus Robinson. Weston Sandifer will be a new starter at quarterback but is a capable passer, according to Garrick. CJ Ransom and Mario Jones will move into roles as running backs. Ransom is a starting linebacker on defense.

Price Miller and Britten Sturkie return as starters on the offensive line while senior TJ Williamson is a returner along the defensive front, where Sturkie also will play. Sophomore linebackers Jayden James and Tyler Smith are players to watch. Robinson and Adam Clark return to anchor the secondary.

Wade Hampton spent the last few seasons in Class AAA and posted back-to-back 10-win seasons the last two years under head coach Dr. Jerry Brown. The coach reports major losses in personnel from last year’s team and will likely dress less than 28 varsity players. Brown enters this season with 289 career victories.

Brown says the Red Devils will have a new starting quarterback and will again lean heavily on the running game. Brayden Frazier is slated for duty under center this fall. The big back in the run game will be fullback Andrew Robinson, who has started the last two seasons at linebacker.

Working as the slot backs are Jamian Risher and Ty Shaw and both will also start on defense in the secondary. Brown expects Risher (6-2, 175) to be a key player this fall.

The lone returner along the offensive front is senior Zach Terry, who also will work on defense as an outside linebacker.

One of four returners on defense is tackle Devonte Owens. Junior Terrance Grant will work at inside linebacker and also at fullback.

Edisto will contend for one of the two playoff spots this season. The Cougars were 6-6 a year ago and won a playoff game.

Ahmad Islar, Dequan Jefferson and Zachary Kirkland are projected returners on the defensive side of the ball. Andrew Mount will be a leader along the offensive line while Nick Ulmer is the likely starter at quarterback.

Silver Bluff looks to rebound from a 2-8 record last season. Sophomore quarterback Malik Williams will be a threat offensively while Connor Barton and Corey Heath return along the offensive line.

Defensive leaders include end Keyon Quattlebaum, linebacker Aubrey Newton and safety Quentin Walker.

At Pelion, coach Dann Holland is looking for more than the one win the Panthers achieved last season. Brian Hall is a returning running back and safety and Deshontez Gray returns at outside linebacker. Will Jeffcoat will be a key returning lineman and senior Ethan Davis is a receiver. Logan Sharpe may be the quarterback and also works as a linebacker. Noah Holland is a returning offensive lineman.

 

Region 6-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Woodland
  2. Timberland
  3. Philip Simmons
  4. Burke
  5. Lake Marion

(note: Ridgeland-Hardeeville is not playing football this season, per district decision)

Woodland returns as much in the area of skill positions as any team in Class AA, but a young unit along both lines will determine the eventual success of the Wolverines.

Woodland won nine games last season and return senior Keyuan Johnson at quarterback. Johnson threw for more than 3,000 yards last season. Two key receivers also return in Jaylen West and Jevon Walker. Walker led the Wolverines in receptions last season.

Mark Bryant returns as the team’s leading rusher. The running game is bolstered by Summerville transfer KJ Rollins, a senior.

Top returners on defense include linemen Jaquan Rivers and Cortez Pringle, linebacker Robert Johnson and defensive back Kendrick Clark.

Timberland has a new head coach as Greg Wright replaces long-time coach Art Craig, who move on to Hanahan as the head coach.

Wright inherits several key returners on defense led by senior end Jamaal McKinney and senior tackle Sam Moultrie, both in their fourth season of varsity play. Derante Prioleau also returns along the front with playing experience.

Linebacker Omari Jenkins is just a sophomore but started every game last year as a freshman and led the team in tackles. The 6-1, 220-pounder is a Division I prospect, according to Wright. Other linebackers include junior Kavonte Lundy and senior Chris Williams and Langston Reed. Leading the play on the back end are senior Eldon Samuel-Wells and Roman Wadford, a junior.

Samuel-Wells will double as Timberland’s top receiving threat while Watford will work as a running back. Williams and Lundy also will share duties in the backfield on offense.

Taking the reins at quarterback is freshman Kylen Brown, who Wright says is mature beyond his years and will be a solid player.

Along the offensive line will be guards Camren Hawkins and Jamari Johnson, tackles Austin Nichols and Steven Adkins, and center Adrian Alcantara.

Eric Bendig continues to build his new program at Philip Simmons. The coach has a bevy of experience returning this fall with several key performers.

Luther Smalls returns as a slot receiver and defensive back and will play a vital role on both sides of the ball. Peyton Woolridge is a versatile all-region performer who will likely focus on tailback duties this season.

The top defender is linebacker Tyler Harper, a two-time all-region pick with more than 230 career tackles. Will Ramey is an all-region athlete who will factor as a two-way player as well.

Burke’s air-raid offense will certainly challenge defenses. Zack Stallings is the trigger man of the offense and also starts at linebacker on defense. Senior JD Powell will be the top receiving threat and starts at safety as well. Cinsaire Hill is the starting running back. Three leaders along the lines of scrimmage include Maquelly Cummings, Jacoby Johnson and Thomas Coaxum, who also will work some at running back.

 

Region 7-AA Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Marion
  2. Andrews
  3. Mullins
  4. Latta
  5. Kingstree

(note: per district decision, Lee Central is not fielding a football team this fall)

Marion won seven games last season but lost out on a playoff berth after losing a tie-breaker. The Swamp Foxes will again be in contention for a berth and a region title this fall.

Leading the list of returners is University of South Carolina commit TJ Sanders (6-5, 275), who is a defensive end.  is the headliner of this group.

Senior Davian Evans (6’3 210) is the other end and one of the more versatile athletes on the team. .

In the middle are two behemoths in senior Gabriel Phillip Johnson (6’2 300) and Greg “GEE” Hopkins (5-8 385).

Linebacker Kyheim Bethea (6-2, 225) returns as the team’s leading tackler from last season.

The lone returning starter in the secondary is senior Levern Bell (6’3 205).

Back to lead the offense is senior running back Qualiek Crawford (5-10, 190) He led the Swamp Foxes with over 1,300 all-purpose yards while averaging eight yards per carry.

The offensive line returns senior guards Keontae Brantley (5-8, 245) and Tyrek Evans (5-8, 350).

Andrews went 8-2 last season, 6-1 in region play, and will again compete for a playoff spot. Returning are running backs  Keshaun Williams and Franklin Grant. Williams had 19 touchdowns last season.

Senior Eli Durham is back at quarterback after sharing time last season. Junior Ethan Cannon is the top returning receiver but 6-5 tight end Waylon Jones will be a threat in the passing game.

Seniors Keyon Barnes (5-9, 275) and Zyaire Ward (6-0, 285) are returning starters along the offensive line.

Junior Dante Fulmore will join Williams and Grant as defensive leaders at linebacker.

Mullins, 7-4 a year ago, tied Andrews for the region title. The top returning player for the Aucs is versatile athlete Alim Legette (6-2, 190), who could see time at quarterback, receiver, running back and safety.

Junior Daveon Reed enters as the starting quarterback and sophomore James Brown is at running back. Leaders along the offensive line include senior center Joey Locklear and guard Saquan Godfrey.

Linebacker Davanta Williams, a junior, will be a key performer on defense.

Latta, 3-8 last season, returns one of the top running back tandems in the region in sophomore Chris McRae (6, 200) and junior Tysean Johnson (5-8, 175). The offensive line returns three of five starters in seniors left tackle Kwame Hennagen (6, 230), right tackle Caleb Bailey (5-9, 225) and left guard Preston Tyler (6, 240).Trey Pelt (5-10, 160) will be back at quarterback after throwing for 500 yards and three touchdowns.

Senior linebacker Alex Strickland returns to lead the defense. He also sees time at tight end where he caught 11 balls for 197 yards and a touchdown. Anchoring the defensive line is junior Jashad Smith.

The secondary returns three starters and should be the strength of the defense with free safety Jordan McRae, corner back JJ McAllister and strong safety Keon White.

Kingstree finished 1-8 last year but should be improved overall.

Returning at quarterback is junior Taye Pressley. Also, back in the backfield is senior Daniel Elmore. He rushed for over 200 yards in 2019. He is starter at outside linebacker on defense.

The Jaguars have senior center Keon Chandler back to lead the offensive line. Seniors Reggie Jones and Johnathan Harris and junior Justus Epps are expected back to lead the defensive front seven.                              

Back in the secondary and the wide out positions are juniors Hakeem Barr and Quentin Nesmith, and senior Jaheim Cooper.

 


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