JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – After two seasons at the AAAA level, where they went 25-2 and won a state championship in 2010, the Chattahoochee Cougars are back at the state’s highest level, but in a region where they should be even more competitive.
The Cougars will compete in Region 6-AAAAAA this season along with three schools from North Fulton and four from Forsyth.
Chattahoochee made the playoffs each of the last two years they played in the predominantly North Fulton AAAAA region, but struggled the four years they were in 7-AAAAA along with larger schools from Gwinnett.
“We’re a better program with better talent and more depth,” Chattahoochee coach Terry Crowder said. “The schools we’re playing are just like us. We’re not playing schools with 2,000 more kids.”
The Cougars prospered at the AAAA level, going unbeaten with a star-studded team in 2010. Even after massive graduation losses, Chattahoochee went 10-2 last year, losing in the second round of the state playoffs to Warner Robins.
Chattahoochee again lost a sizeable number of seniors, but enter this season with a largely veteran and talented offense, along with a defensive unit that will emphasize speed more than size.
Leading the way will be quarterback Travis Marshall, who passed for more than 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and rushed for almost 650 yards.
Crowder says Marshall is “cut out of the same mold” as recent Chattahoochee quarterbacks Brendan Cross and Timmy Byerly, who signed scholarships with Wake Forest and Middle Tennessee respectively.
“Travis runs better than he can throw, but he’s a very adequate thrower,” said Crowder.
Marshall also provides leadership at a position where teams look for leadership, the coach said.
Marshall will again be surrounded by plenty of talent at the skill positions, beginning with junior tailbacks Chase Nelson and C.J. Leggett, who combined for more than 1,500 yards rushing and 27 total touchdowns last year.
Instead of alternating them, Crowder said Nelson and Leggett will never leave the field. “They’ll be in the game at all times, whether we’re in a one-back, two-back or no-back set,” he said. “We can’t have them on the sidelines.
“When you have two good running backs, it puts so much pressure on the defense. You have to try to take away the run, but you can’t key on one. And both have good hands. They’re perfect for this offense,” Crowder said.
The Cougars lost their top receivers, but have added Collin Lisa, a transfer from North Carolina who has “the best hands of any kid I’ve ever coached and is the best route runner,” according to Crowder.
Justin Jackson gives the Cougars a burner on the outside like Will Johnson last year. Versatile Alec Rubin will also be taking on a larger role.
The Cougars return starting linemen Brandon Keith and Majeed Bilal, with three key backups from last season moving into starting roles.
“I feel good about the offensive line,” Crowder said.
Combined with the passing, rushing and receiving talent, he says the Cougars have an excellent chance “to be very good offensively.”
The defense returns three starters in the line, but will have to replace a lot of departed starters at linebacker and in the secondary.
Bilal, John Sanders and O.J. Thompson are the returning starters up front, with Brian Sykes keying a linebacker corps Crowder says “has better depth than we’ve had, but is inexperienced.”
The Cougars lost standout cornerbacks Will Johnson and Marcus Sayles, but Jackson will help make up for their absence, with Lisa also helping out at safety.
“I still think defense wins championships,” said Crowder, whose team played outstanding defense last season with the exception of a playoff win over Habersham Central and its talented option quarterback.
A key for the Cougars in recent seasons has been a string of college-caliber placekickers, with sophomore soccer standout Matt Morgan stepping into that role.
Chattahoochee opens its season Saturday, Aug. 25, at 9 a.m. in the Georgia Dome against Kell in the Corky Kell Kickoff Classic.