MOULTRIE – Defending Class 3A state champion Cedar Grove won’t be undefeated when it visits Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium to meet Colquitt County on Friday, but the Saints’ loss at Mill Creek last week is unlikely to have significantly changed the Packers’ preparations.
The game against the Packers will be the fourth in row for Cedar Grove against Class 7A teams.
The Saints defeated Westlake 30-20 and defending Class 7A champion Collins Hill 40-6 before running into Mill Creek last Friday.
The Hawks scored 38 points in the first half, including 24 in the second quarter, to help cool the Saints with a 52-36 victory.
But opponents are on alert. The potential for the Saints to erupt is always lurking.
Cedar Grove lost three games last year, including one the Packers won by a 28-19 score on Sept. 3, but none once the playoffs started.
The Saints average margin of victory in the five postseason games last season was 38 points.
And while Cedar Grove has lost four players from that team to Power 5 programs, the Saints are still ranked No. 1 in Class 3A and many believe they have the talent to repeat.
Colquitt County head coach Sean Calhoun, who has his Packers at 4-0 after an impressive 48-27 win at Lee County, won’t argue.
“When I evaluate our opponents, I look to see, do they have good coaches and do they have good players,” Calhoun said. “With Cedar Grove, it’s check, check.
“They have formed a super team up there.”
Cedar Grove has won the Class 3A state championship in four of the last six seasons and one of the years it didn’t was shortened by COVID.
And three different coaches have led the Saints to those titles: Jimmy Smith in 2016 and 2018, Miguel Patrick in 2019 and John Adams last year.
And since 2015, Cedar Grove is a combined 79-16.
Despite the high-profile losses to graduation, Cedar Grove returns 16 starters and among the players who the Packers will have to account for is high school All-American cornerback Kayin Lee, who has committed to Ohio State.
Lee had seven interceptions last year, including two in the state championship game.
Three-star linebacker Everett Roussaw is back from the 2021 team as is four-star defensive end Adonijah Green.
Wide receiver/defensive back Ricky Lee has committed to UConn. He had four pass receptions against Mill Creek for 89 yards and also threw a touchdown pass.
Receiver Barry Jackson, who caught nine passes for 155 yards last week, has said he is going to Nebraska.
Perhaps the biggest difference in this year’s team is in the quarterback play. Sophomore E.J. Colson is a dual threat who was 19-for-30 for 315 yards threw for three touchdowns and ran for another against Mill Creek.
The Saints are averaging 34 points a game, but still miss running back Rashod Dubinion, who started last year and is now playing at Arkansas. Cedar Grove managed just 47 rushing yards on 32 attempts against Mill Creek.
Calhoun is hoping for a large crowd against a team who is used to winning and winning meaningful games.
It could be a postseason-type atmosphere at The Mack on Friday and that would be just fine with Calhoun.
“When you can play in a playoff atmosphere early in the season, it really sets you up for region play and the playoffs,” he said.
Calhoun said last week’s bye came at a good time for the Packers, who were nursing the normal bumps and bruises associated with playing a physical team like Lee County.
He also is hoping the Packers can build on a win that included a 24-point fourth quarter that put away the Trojans, who were ranked No. 2 in Class 6A.
“That was a tough win,” Calhoun said. “We had to go take it from them. So we earned it.
“You can feel that confidence building. There’s a fine line between being confident and being cocky. Our kids are confident. And they should be.”
The Packers opened with a 37-0 victory over out-manned Deerfield Beach (Fla.) in the Georgia-Florida Challenge at Lowndes, then blanked Stockbridge 29-0 in a game that called at the half because of lightning.
Colquitt had little trouble with Tift County at home, winning 41-13 to set up the trip to Leesburg.
Calhoun has been especially pleased with the development of the defense.
“That was our No. 1 concern,” he said. “But every game we play, our kids are getting more and more experience.
“Our guys are going to have to fight through some growing pains, but they are learning how to play. We are learning and we are winning, so it’s the best of both worlds.”
Defensively, the Packers have been starting a front that has just one veteran, 186-pound nose guard Julian Harper, who picked up a fumble and scored his first varsity touchdown against Lee County.
The two ends are Tyshon Reed Jr., who did not play football last year, and Amari Wilson, a sophomore.
The two inside linebackers are the team’s top-two tacklers.
Junior Nick Pace, who also did not play last year, leads the team in tackles with 41.
Senior Kamal Bonner, who has committed to Georgia Tech and is playing his first year at linebacker after moving from safety, has 30 tackles.
Outside linebackers Daveon Hunt and Qway McCoy, have come up with several big plays. Hunt ranks No. 3 on the team in tackles with 24.
Carlos Moore and Raheim McBride are expected to be challenged by the Cedar Grove passing attack on Friday.
The safety play, with seniors Jack Luttrell and Lyric Thomas handling much of the duty, has been solid. Thomas has two interceptions.
The offensive line continues to do yeoman-like work.
Jay’Den Williams has been the center; Cole Holmes and Ja’Nas, the guards; and Keshaun Palmore and Turk Daniels the tackles.
Six Packers – seven, if you count Luttell, who scored on a fake punt against Lee County – have offensive touchdowns in the first four games.
Sophomore quarterback Neko Fann has completed 49-of-76 passes for 646 yards and eight touchdowns.
A pair of junior receivers – Ny Carr and Za’Mari Williams – lead the team with 14 catches each.
Williams has three touchdown receptions. Carr, surprisingly, is looking for his first.
Big, Georgia-committed tight end Landen Thomas has 12 catches for 237 yards and three scores. And his blocking is an unappreciated weapon itself.
Charlie Pace ran for 154 yards, including 68 on a scoring scamper, against Lee County and now has 453 for the season.
The special teams have been solid, adding a touchdown on Luttrell’s dash against Lee County.
Brett Fitzgerald has not missed an extra-point attempt and among his four field goals are two from 44 yards.