MOULTRIE – After his team has played four top-10 teams to open the season, Colquitt County’s Justin Rogers is cautiously looking forward to playing unranked and unremarkable Heritage High of Conyers at 7:30 p.m. Friday on Tom White Field t Mack Tharpe Stadium.
The Packers are 3-1 – and perhaps a turnover away from being 4-0 – after crashing through a four-game entry into a season that included games against Marietta, Westlake, Cedar Grove and Valdosta, all still ranked in the top 10 teams in their classifications.
And throw in a preseason scrimmage against Lee County, still undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Class 6A, and the Packers appear due a respite.
“I’ll put my first four games against any schedule in the state,” Rogers said. “I don’t think anyone has played a tougher four games. We have had to get ‘up’ every week.”
Heritage, on paper, as they say, appears just the sort of opponent that the Packers could use.
The Region 3-6A Patriots are 0-2 after opening with a 20-10 loss to Salem and a 14-0 defeat at the hands of Meadowcreek.
The team’s game scheduled for last Friday against Hapeville Charter was canceled, apparently because of the coronavirus.
And this follows a 2020 COVID-wracked season in which Heritage was able to play only five games, winning three.
The Rockdale County school has been playing football since 1976, but has won just two region titles, in 2011 and 2016.
Heritage also is breaking in a new coach this season.
Former defensive coordinator Eddie Snell has taken over for Corey Johnson, who led the program to a 24-25 record over five seasons.
Johnson, a former University of Georgia player, is now the cornerbacks coach and head boys basketball coach at Ola High School.
Snell, an Alabama native who played collegiately at Alabama State, has been at Heritage for eight years and was on the staff at Jackson for eight years before going to Conyers.
Rogers said he suspects that the effects of the coronavirus have been especially harmful to the Heritage program. Having a new coach this season has not helped.
“Our focus has to be on us, on our execution,” Rogers said. “If we don’t take them seriously, we’ll be in a second-half game. This could be the ultimate ‘trap’ game.”
Rogers is hoping to be able to get a lot of players some Friday-night experience.
With injuries always an unknown and the specter of a quarantine looming, Rogers needs to have as many game-ready players as possible.
“If we have a good week of practice and prepare well, I think we’ll be able to do that,” Rogers said.
Colquitt has come through the scrimmage and first four games “battle tested,” said Rogers, noting that the Packers have had to come from behind in each one.
And although there are areas of concern, especially on defense, Rogers said he has seen his team grow over the last four weeks.
“I think you can see the kids getting better right in front of your eyes,” Rogers said.
The emergence of sophomore quarterback Neko Fann has been the most noticeable.
Fann delivered a number of clutch, perfectly thrown balls that helped the Packers stave off the Wildcats in last Friday’s 48-42 victory.
His third-quarter throw to the end zone to fellow sophomore Landen Thomas was a thing of beauty.
The 41-yarder to Ontavious Carolina to the Valdosta 3 with two minutes left in the game to set up what proved to be the game winning touchdown could not have been placed better.
Fann didn’t throw often, attempting just 14 passes.
But he hit on 11 for a career-high 262 yards.
“Neko had to step up and he did,” Rogers said. “He delivered some unbelievable throws.”
Fann also showed that he is nimble as well, making several crucial runs.
And as Fann develops and Charlie Pace continues to wow defenses, teammates and fans, the Packers offense will become more diverse.
The return of Baby D Wheeler was crucial against the Wildcats. And Carolina is playing himself into a more prominent role in the offense.
The Packers are averaging 32 points in four games against quality opponents while sophomores are still cutting their teeth.
They are likely to continue to challenge defenses in new and different ways in the coming weeks.
The defense was exposed again by the Wildcats after Cedar Grove had success on the ground the week before.
In the last two games, the Packers have surrendered 473 yards on the ground.
“We have got to be able to stop the other teams from running the football,” Rogers said.
The Packers will concentrate on run defense and other areas this week, including cutting back on pre- and post-snap penalties and figuring out a way to get off to a better start each Friday night.
But Rogers said one of his biggest takeaways from the last four weeks, and it is a crucial one, is that “our kids understand how to deal with adversity.”