ALPHARETTA – After three straight winning seasons and three consecutive playoff appearances, the Alpharetta Raiders have something they want to accomplish this season.
Win a playoff game.
The Raiders have been eliminated in the first round of the state playoffs each of the past three years, the last two losses coming in excruciatingly painful fashion.
After going 9-1 and 7-3 the last two seasons, much of the talent from those squads is gone. But the Raiders are not lacking in that department this season, even though there are some big shoes left to fill.
The Raiders have to replace Division I caliber players at quarterback, wide receiver and the defensive line, as well as other key senior starters.
“Any time you have that many talented kids, it’s not easy to replace,” Alpharetta coach Jason Dukes says.
The Raiders return a decent nucleus from last year, along with newcomers from an undefeated junior varsity team.
“We have a lot of kids from the JV who will be asked to step up and play major roles,” Dukes says.
The biggest challenge is reserved for junior Austin King, who will take over at quarterback for Josh Dobbs, who accounted for over 4,000 yards and 39 touchdowns last season.
Dukes describes King as “a pocket quarterback” with a strong arm and “a good understanding of our system.”
King is not the runner Dobbs was, but Dukes hopes the Raiders will help compensate for that with a stronger ground game. Alpharetta has several candidates for the running back position, including 2012 backup Lem Cobbs, Wesleyan transfer Miles Smith and Breon Murry, a speedy move-in from St. Louis.
“I think the running game will be much improved,” Dukes offers. “But a lot depends on the offensive line.”
Guards Zach Mikos and Jacob Arnold return, with Nick Torrance and Cary Shirley taking over at tackle and Chris Wagner at center. Dukes says the line will have “fair size,” and will be counted on to protect King and create some space for a running game that has been mostly ineffective for the pass-oriented Raiders the past few seasons.
King will have a talented group of receivers, led by Daniel Clements, who led the team with 1286 yards and nine TD receptions. Andre Harton also returns, with the Raiders getting some help from the JV team. Elijah Bennett, who Dobbs describes as “one of the best athletes in North Fulton,” is also in the mix at both running back and receiver, “and we have to find the right place for him.”
Even without Dobbs and a talented group of receivers, Dukes says “I have a very good feeling about our offense.”
The Raiders also lost plenty of talent on defense, but Dukes believes his team could be better on that side of the ball this season. Defensive end Andrew Butcher is a highly prized prospect, with fellow juniors Austin Hoffman and Brandon Meeks also expected to make key contributions in the line.
Senior Auzoyah Alufohai from Nigeria is 6-4, 309 and playing football for the first time, and is described by Dukes “as a bit of a wild card.”
The Raiders will be “as deep at linebacker as we’ve ever been,” Dukes says, led by Bryce Grauss, one of the area’s top returning players and the team’s leading tackler as a sophomore and junior. Jalin Johnson will join Grauss on the inside, with Dorian Lee leading the competition on the inside.
The secondary took a hit when returning corner DeAndre Watkins suffered a broken collarbone, but Dukes hopes to have him back for the season opener. The Raiders have some promising youngsters capable of moving into the lineup at corner, with seniors Chase Stratton and Jay Youngblood giving them a standout pair of safeties.
Dukes says the Raiders “have raised the bar” for the program the past few seasons, but need to take the next step.
“We’ve had two really tough losses in the playoffs the past two seasons, and we understand that it’s nobody’s fault but our own. We have to work hard to achieve different results and we’re prepared to do that.”