CONYERS -- For the first time as a high school head coach, Corey Johnson had to learn how to win games with inexperienced players in 2018.
Johnson’s days of taking his high-powered offense to the playoffs in 2016 and 2017, seasons that featured the likes of quarterback Caleb Pruitt and wide receiver Jordan Young, were over.
While the Patriots still had star wide receiver and defensive back Devron Harper at their disposal, his services were not enough in what turned into a three-win season, their fewest in Johnson’s three-year tenure.
With Harper competing for a starting job at Gardner Webb and Young competing for a starting job at Florida State, the Patriots are as young as they have ever been under Johnson’s direction.
That, however, does not mean the cupboard is bare.
“I still have those same caliber of athletes, but with less experience,” Johnson said. “They have to be groomed, but with experience, they will grow and blossom. We have some guys that haven’t been in the position up under the lights. It’s going to take game experience for them to gain confidence.”
A battle at quarterback
The Patriots went from averaging 31.6 points per game in 2016 and 32.3 points per game in 2017 to averaging 14.1 points per game in 2018. That steep decline started and stopped at the quarterback position.
The duo of Jalen Kimble and Ray Joseph combined to complete just 38 percent of their passes in 2018. Their combined 16 interceptions, 11 from Kimble and five from Joseph, outnumbered their passing touchdowns by seven.
In 2019, Johnson has yet to name a starter. His final decision will come down to junior Miles Young or freshman Ormoni Marshall, a young left-hander poised to make a name for himself as an underclassman.
“I was in awe the first day that he got here,” Johnson said of Marshall. “Watching him throw a backside post and looking frontside. I was talking to one of our coaches while also watching this play. I stopped mid sentence and was like, ‘what was that?’ That was something that I didn’t see until I got to the University of Georgia.”
Marshall, a standout at Edwards Middle School, did not practice with the team during the spring or summer months. After enrolling at Heritage and stepping on campus for the first time two weeks ago, Johnson said he has already played himself into a battle with Young, who spent the spring as summer with the first team.
“One thing that has impressed me is Marshall coming in as a ninth grader,” Johnson said. “His arm strength as a freshman is impressive. Getting him into the system and getting him comfortable, he’s just a student of the game.”
He got out here and the first thing that he wanted to know was if he could get a playbook. Coach (Eddie) Snell had him in class and told me that he was the most active guy in class. He asked questions and answered questions left after right. I’m excited about that.”
Following in Harper's footsteps
At wide receiver, the absence of Harper is evident. After leading the team in receptions (38), yards (576) and touchdowns (7), the Patriots return only one player from 2018 who caught a touchdown pass.
Junior Caleb Clements, the lone receiver on the roster responsible for a touchdown grab in 2018, is one Johnson expects to make a big impact this season. He also pointed to Jarvis Manuel and freshman Tyler Young, the younger brother of Jordan, to all take steps forward in 2019.
“A lot of people are saying that we have hit a down year for our receiving corps, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case for us,” Johnson said. “The only difference this year is that we won’t have one returning this year. But we have a ton of guys that are ready to go.”
The wright change
In position to lead the Patriots’ offense in 2019 is first-year offensive coordinator Damoio’n Wright, who spent the 2018 season as the offensive coordinator at Alcovy High School.
At the young age of 24, Johnson has been impressed with Wright’s work ethic thus far.
“I love coach Wright,” Johnson said. “He’s young and energetic. He cares about his label. He wants to better himself and wants to be the best. I coached against the young man when he was in high school and remember him as a player.”
A graduate of Putnum, Wright later coached under former UGA standout and teammate of Johnson, Robert Edwards at Greene County prior to his arrival at Alcovy.
“I started seeing him on the coaching scene after he graduated,” Johnson said. “When I would see him, he was coming to take notes and coming to scout. What I liked about him from Day 1 is that he’s a student of the game. He’s trying to soak up everything that he can get and it shows when we get out there on the field. I think he’s going to be the guy to get us where we need to be.”
An experienced defense
On defense, the Patriots return several starters from 2018, including Super Six defensive lineman Ethan Saunders and junior Courtney McBride, who led the Patriots in sacks with 10.
“Courtney was just scratching the surface last year,” Johnson said. “Courtney is going to have a weight room behind him now. Ethan will have a weight room behind him, too. They will be bigger and stronger than they were last year and that’s saying a lot, especially when you look at the things those two guys did for me last year.”
The Patriots also return two starters in the secondary in junior Aric Seay and senior Keveione Zanders, a unit Johnson expects to be really good this season.
“We’re exciting in the secondary,” Johnson said. “We have guys that can run and cover. They are smart, too. Most of them are classmates, so they’re walking around the halls with each other and are pushing each other. They want to make each other better.”
Alongside Seay, Johnson pointed to junior Juleion Simmons as a player he expects to take a big jump in his first season with extended playing time.
“Aric played a ton for us last year,” Johnson said. “Aric has corner ability and has a physical presence. He is smart and is able to stop the run, tackle in space and cover. Juleion is a cover guy, but he’s a thumper. He saw some playing time for us last year, but not as much.”
Having played safety at Georgia, Johnson knows how valuable a good secondary can be to the success of a defense.
“If the secondary messes up, the band plays for the other team,” Johnson said. “Everyone else has a chance to mess up. The defensive line can have a bust and we can still get off the field. The linebackers can have a bust and we can still get off the field. Nobody wants to hear the other team’s band play and I have to keep the secondary group mindful of that.”
At the end of the day, Johnson said he won’t hesitate to play underclassmen if it means they will give the team a better chance at winning football games in 2019.
“I don’t want those young guys to feel like they have to wait their turn,” Johnson said. “I never felt like that. No coach every made me feel like I had to wait my turn, so I don’t think that right for them. Your turn is when you’re ready to go and outwork the people that are in front of you.”
The disappointment the Patriots felt in 2018 was real. With a re-tooled offense and defense and a better idea as to how to attack the season, Johnson said he expects to get his team back into the playoffs for the third time in four years.
“The only way to get that bad taste out of your mouth from last year is to start over,” Johnson said. “The slate is wiped clean. It’s 0-0 and it’s a brand new ball game. We have some teams that beat up on us last year that are probably thinking, ‘yeah, we have their number.’ Before they know it, they’re going to look back and say that the Heritage football program is back in a nasty way. The next thing I’ll tell their coaches after that is all of them will be back next year, too. I’m excited.”