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Commentary: Corky Kell Classic gives teams early gauge on how good they can be

As we kick off the football season tonight and tomorrow, the 10 teams in action get their first shot at Friday — or Saturday — glory.

As Cobb County’s teams found out last season, they only get one chance to make a first impression.

Lassiter, McEachern and Walton all found a way to beat their opponents from Gwinnett County at the Georgia Dome in the Corky Kell Classic, and it propelled them to a combined 34-7 record in 2011. The Raiders ended up back in the Dome playing for a state title and Lassiter likely would have been if they would not have had to face Walton in the semifinals.

But, believe it or not, the team that may have earned the most respect in the Classic last year was Kell in a 7-0 defeat to eventual Class AAAAA state champion Grayson.

Earlier this year when the coaches got together, the Longhorns’ Derek Cook and the Rams’ Mickey Conn proved to be a mutual admiration society — both said they were glad they didn’t have to play the other for a third straight year.

“They are so tenacious on defense,” Conn said of Kell. “And, the year before, (the Longhorns) were great on both sides of the ball.”

It is no coincidence, that two years ago, when Kell got by Grayson 13-10 to open the 2010 season, the Longhorns were led by three-time all-state defensive back Brian Randolph, who was a freshman All-American at Tennessee in 2011. Randolph was the driving force behind Kell’s 12-1 season, just like the top-ranked high school player in the nation is for the Rams.

Robert Nkemdiche, the all-everything defensive end, running back and Clemson commitment, has had 19 sacks each of the last two years. He announced his presence against Kell last season by dominating the Longhorns’ offensive line and being a thorn in their passing game. The Rams held Kell to less than 100 yards of total offense for the game and signaled the big things that were on the horizon.

McEachern gets the first crack at the defending state champions on Saturday, but Cook is not so sure that any team is going to want to face Grayson this season.

“I just don’t know if anyone is going to score on them,” he said about the Rams defense. “And I mean all season.”

In their third appearance in the Classic, the Longhorns will be the only Cobb team not facing a school from Gwinnett team on Saturday. Instead, Kell will face 2010 Class AAAA state champion Chattahoochee, leaving the Cobb-Gwinnett matchups to McEachern and Walton, but Cook says the familiarity of the programs – and Gwinnett’s overall success over the last decade — may be a motivating factor on this side of the perimeter.

“It may add a little bit to it,” he said. “But there are (different) philosophies. Gwinnett has bigger schools and because of that they have a higher number of elite players. I think the biggest school we have in Cobb is Walton.”

Despite having fewer players, Walton has reached the summit of the mountain. Now they have to figure out how to plant the flag to mark its territory.

Of course standing in their way will still likely be Nkemdiche and Grayson, along with Brookwood for starters on Saturday. But the Raiders’ growth, along with Kell, McEachern, Lassiter, Hillgrove and any other Cobb team that is fighting to break into the state’s elite status, has not gone unnoticed by Conn, or any of the other big-time coaches and their programs.

“They all have good coaches,” Conn said. McEachern, Walton, Kell are really coached well and have extremely good talent – and they have a lot of speed on the field.”

Cook said he believed his squad was a mirror image of Grayson. Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo said he has tried to model his program after Brookwood and McEachern, Lassiter and Hillgrove can line up favorably with Peachtree Ridge, North Gwinnett and Parkview. Both sides give each other high praise, but only one is currently the state champion.

“I feel blessed people think of us that way,” Conn said about how people around the state and the country consider the Rams to be the elite in high school football. “But it doesn’t really mean a whole lot until you lineup and start playing.

Of course leave it to Hidalgo to sum it up succinctly. “In quoting the great Ric Flair, ‘To be the man, you have to beat the man,’” he said.

(Reprinted from the Marietta Daily Journal, August 23, 2012. Written by by John Bednarowski. Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Commentary Corky Kell Classic gives teams early gauge on how good they can be )

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