High school football: Final slate of Corky Kell Classic games at the Benz

ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - The Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic concludes Saturday with four games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium featuring all Gwinnett and Cobb County schools. The schools all know one another and have built some intense rivalries over the years.

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Matt Stewart and Chris Millman will call the Marietta-Norcross game beginning at 10 a.m. Stewart and Johnson will then handle the Brookwood-McEachern game, and Adams and Mansell will call the North Gwinnett-Mill Creek game and the nightcap when Walton and Grayson square off.

How to watch Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic:

You can watch the games all season on PeachtreeTV or by downloading the ANF+ app on Roku, FireTV and AppleTV. You can watch today’s games by clicking on the “ANF Special Events” channel here: https://www.atlantanewsfirst.com/livestream/

Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic Game Previews:

Norcross vs. Marietta

Norcross and Marietta have been playing football in some form or fashion since 1902 for Marietta and 1923 for Norcross.

There have been 29 different head coaches involved in the Marietta or Norcross programs since their inception, plus 221 combined football-playing years. In all that time, with all of those influences and despite being just 24 miles apart, the programs have never met.

That is until now. The storied programs will unite for the first time to open the final day of the Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to kick off the four-game Saturday schedule.

“Most of our young guys were either watching on TV or from the sideline last season, so it will be nice for them to get that first taste,” said Marietta head coach Richard Morgan. “It will be nice to play in that first game. Last year, we were the last game of the night, so we spent a lot of time waiting around, but it’s just so good to be back for the second year.”

Marietta is a few seasons removed from the program’s 2019 state championship, marking the second title (1967) for the Blue Devils and following last year’s 5-7 finish and second-round exit, Marietta is looking for more and has returning experience to get it.

“We have most of our receiver’s corps back,” Morgan said. “Bobby Butler, Brandon Rosato, all key players are back. Plus, we got a transfer in Noah Brown, who I think is going to be a very special player for us. So, we feel really good about our wideouts. Then, our tight end Thomas Abercrombie, we feel good about him too.”

Arguably Marietta’s strongest returning force is at the quarterback position, senior Chase McCravy.

“Our quarterback was new to the offense last season and returns, knowing the offense really, really well,” Morgan said. “He’s had great camps this summer and we expect a lot out of him, throwing and running the ball.”

During his junior campaign, McCravy was 128-of-231 passing for 1,448 yards and eight touchdowns, but with 11 interceptions. His developed knowledge of the offense will likely produce a faster start to this season. On the ground, he rushed for three touchdowns on 67 carries. The Blue Devils will have to weather the graduation of its two leading receivers – Nakari Ashley (4 TDs) and Christian Mathis (4 TDs) – but returning experience will help.

On the offensive line, Cole Davis and Reago Hudson play tackle and guard and provide experience that will help returning running backs Jaylen Frazier and Russell Bey find space in opposing defensive lines. Frazier is a 5-foot-11 running back and Bey is a 5-foot-9, 185-pound running back.

“We have some key pieces to kind of fill in, or replace, but there’s a pretty good nucleus back on offense,” he said.

On the other side of the field, Head coach Keith Maloof is entering his 28th season as a head coach and 24th season at Norcross. He’s 215-96 through 311 games and has six region championships with two state titles.

The team is 10 years removed from its back-to-back state championships in 2012-2013 when the Blue Devils finished 15-0 and 13-2 respectively and with a vast swath of returning talent, the Blue Devils are formidable.

Since the back-to-back championships, Norcross has advanced to the playoffs each season but exited in the first or second rounds in each season aside from a semifinal appearance in 2020. Despite finishing 8-4 in the past two seasons, the Blue Devils are determined to return deep into the postseason.

The main returning piece is quarterback AJ Watkins, an Air Force-commit. The 6-2, 180-pound senior was 147-of-236 passing for 2,132 yards and 23 touchdowns last season while rushing for 606 yards and seven touchdowns. Watkins led Norcross to an 8-4 record and managed an offense that averaged 197 passing to 161 rushing yards per game last season.

Watkins is multi-talented and at the Corky Kell + Dave Hunter/Brent Key 7-on-7 Tournament at Georgia Tech, Watkins was featured as receiver on a play, utilized his speed, and out-classed several defenders, beating them down the left sideline for a touchdown.

“Well, that’s AJ,” said Maloof, while shaking his head and chuckling at Watkins’ speed.

In the backfield, Norcross returns senior Michael Ammons (7 TDs last season) and junior Laji Taylor (2 TDs), both productive last season. The team lost its three leading receivers from last season, but junior Jamari Harrold (1 TD reception last season) returns.

Brookwood vs. McEachern

When Brookwood and McEachern meet on the second day of the day in the Corky Kell Dave Hunter Classic, it will be the ninth time the two teams have faced off. McEachern currently leads the series 5-3 and won the last matchup 48-10 in 2019. The Indians head into 2023 after a disappointing 4-6 season and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. However, McEachern is riding high into the season with newly appointed head coach Kareem Reid after their impressive 31-7 victory against Pebblebrook in the August scrimmage. Coach Reid talked about how the administration is making a difference and what he is trying to establish in year one.

“The administration is awesome and super supportive. Great facilities and resources. The community is 100% behind the program,” said Reid. “The players have been great. It’s kind of a dream job as a head coach and has everything you could ever want. For us year one we are coming in and establishing a culture. We are building a foundation for the future. I think we have enough right now to win right away and really make some noise in the state of Georgia, so I am excited to see what we do come August.”

Going into 2023, Brookwood will replace one of their best passers in program history in Dylan Lonergan. Lonergan was a four-star prospect and is now playing college football at Alabama. Brookwood is coming off a 6-5 season and their seventh consecutive playoff appearance under head coach Phillip Jones. Jones has two 10 win seasons in his career with the Broncos and will look to push his team deeper into the postseason.

Offensively, WR Lee Niles will be a key contributor for the Broncos. Last season, Niles was second on the team with 426 yards receiving and three touchdowns as a junior. He also had the longest reception on the team with a 73-yard grab in 2022. A potential player to watch is freshman running back Brayden Tyson, who could carve out a role in his first year for the Broncos. Tyson already has offers from Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and USF before taking his first varsity reps. Tyson played in the Under Armour All-American game as an eighth grader and is already on the national radar.

McEachern will be strong upfront and on the backend this season. The Indians return a good bit of their starters on the offensive line. This includes Parker McClendon who stands at 6′2 and 310 pounds and is an anchor on the offensive line. In the secondary, Daniel James (Cincinnati Commit) finished his junior season with 46 tackles, 15 PBUs, a forced fumble and an interception. James is one of the most outstanding cornerbacks in the state and a ballhawk in the secondary.

“I think the offensive line is our strength. This is probably the best offensive line that I have walked into as a head coach,” said Reid. “After that our secondary is pretty good on defense too. When you are good in the trenches upfront you get a chance every single week and on the back end when you can cover people up you can do a lot of different things defensively. I am excited for us.”

Brookwood will have some key returning starters on defense this season and one of them is inside linebacker Cali Gober who has committed to Mississippi Valley State. Gober finished third on the team with 90 tackles. He also had 10 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, and a sack last season for the Broncos. 3 star defensive back Kaleb Neal (Appalachian State commit) will be a vital piece in the secondary for Brookwood. Neal brings a lot of experience and had 33 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception during his junior season.

For Coach Reid playing in the Corky Kell Dave Hunter Classic means more. He talked about how special it is to play in such a prominent event and one of the biggest across the country in his first year as the head coach for the Indians.

“Corky Kell is an event I always wanted to be a part of. Obviously being at Westlake and Griffin in the past as the head coach, I never got the opportunity to participate in that,” said Reid. “I kind of was always envious of the teams that were selected so to be a part of that event now as one of the premier games I am super excited for that individually as a head coach.”

North Gwinnett vs. Mill Creek

An intense Gwinnett-area rivalry highlights the third Saturday showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic. The major themes will be Mill Creek opening the season wanting to mount a championship defense and North Gwinnett seeking a smooth transition with its new head coach.

“North Gwinnett and Mill Creek have been rivals for several years,” said first-year Mill Creek head coach Eric Godfree, who was hired from Parkview to take over the program in February following Bill Stewart’s departure to the Georgia Tech coaching staff.

“Especially them [previously] being in the same region together. So that alone is big, then you throw it at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a part of the Corky Kell, our whole community is excited about this game.”

The Hawks are coming off the program’s first state title after beating Carrollton 70-35 in the Class 7A championship game last season. Mill Creek’s Josh Lovelady is entering his fifth season as the head coach in Hoschton after coach Shannon Jarvis handed over the keys. Jarvis helped build the program, which started playing football in 2004, with Lovelady’s assistance.

Mill Creek has 11 returning starters and 34 returning lettermen from the 2022 state championship team and is perfectly positioned to make another run in the 2023 playoffs. The team did lose valuable seniors from last season, but there are a lot of younger players who gained valuable experience and they are ready to prove what they can do.

Senior running back and Navy-commit Cam Robinson returns after 214 carries for 1,802 yards and 21 touchdowns in the championship run. Senior linebacker and North Alabama-commit Josh Anglin made 71 solo tackles with 25 assists, 13 tackles for loss, five sacks and one interception. Senior Trajen Greco, a Georgia Tech-commit, stars as a defensive back and receiver who made 41 solo tackles and 20 assists and five interceptions with 17 pass break ups last season.

Senior defensive back/receiver Jaiden Patterson, senior defensive back/receiver Justin Content, senior offensive lineman Aiden Banfield and senior linebacker/tight end Cole Mullins also return.

On the other side of the field, North Gwinnett will look for an inspiring Week 1 victory and it returns talent from last season’s quarterfinal run to make Godfree’s job a bit easier.

“We are pretty young and somewhat inexperienced, but I feel really good about what we have, offensively,” said Godfree. “Our quarterback [Ryan Hall], in my personal opinion, is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the state for his class, 2025. He does amazing things, incredible arm. He does a lot of Johnny Manziel type of things, if you will. He just creates more time in the pocket.”

Last season, as a sophomore, Hall was 99-of-181 passing for 1,610 yards and 12 touchdowns, while running for 787 yards and nine touchdowns to lead a program averaging 232 rushing to 139 passing yards. Senior Julian Walters had 185 carries for 1,134 yards and 15 touchdowns to lead the rushing attack.

The Bulldogs will have to find replacements for last year’s leading receivers – Marek Bailey, Will Collins and Grant Godfrey – who were lost to graduation.

“There’s some inexperienced receivers, but we feel really good about them,” Godfree said. “Carter Campbell, a senior for us, he is 6-foot-2 and a tall target. Erik Ronning and Nick Bookman, well, Bookman is hurt but we hope he’s back for Mill Creek, but those are our two fastest receivers, and both had really good summers.”

On the defensive side, North Gwinnett’s defensive line is stacked, according to Godfree.

“This is where I get most excited,” he said. “In 24 years of doing this, this is the best defensive line I have coached. This is a very good defensive line. We have four guys up front and three have Power 5 offers and the other will eventually have a Power 5 offer.”

The line is anchored by junior 6-foot-4, 225-pound edge Cole Funderburk, who had 15 sacks last season and is explosive off the line. Another impacting factor on the line is 6-foot-3 junior defensive tackle Braxton Kyle, who has several Power 5 offers.

“Both of them have had a great summer for us,” Godfree said. “Senior Jaden Brock also will factor. He has every Academy offering him and some other offers to go along with that as well. He’s a good football player. London Seymour, the other starting tackle, he’s got great size. He’s a junior and just started playing football as a freshman. So when he really gets things going and figures out football, he is going to be a great player and a college player as well.”

Walton vs. Grayson

The eleventh game of the 32nd annual Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic and Saturday’s grand finale will stage a must-see battle between two of this year’s top contenders in Class 7A. The only other previous time that the Rams and Raiders have faced came in the 2011 state championship game and Grayson. Both programs were undefeated at the time and searching for their first-ever state titles and Grayson came away with a 24-0 victory. The Rams have added two more state titles in the 11 years since that initial triumph and have captured eight region titles and recorded 10 double-digit win seasons over the same span with nine-straight heading into 2023. Walton has not returned to the finals since the 2011 season, but has remained one of the state’s most consistent and talented programs.

Under head coach Daniel Brunner—who is heading into his seventh season at the helm—Walton has advanced past the first round of the state playoffs every year. The Raiders famously served top-ranked Buford a 42-35 defeat in the second round last year before falling to Carrollton in the playoffs and are returning all the key pieces and more from that impressive run. Walton’s offense is commanded by senior quarterback Jeremy Hecklinski—who shattered the school-record last season with a 271 passing yards per game average, 3,520 total yards through the air and 37 passing touchdowns. Hecklinski’s efficiency is just one layer of his skillset and the ability to distribute the ball with elite accuracy is why he is considered one of the top passers in the state heading into the season. Miami-Ohio commit Hunter Teal is back at tight end and nearly tallied 1,000 yards last season and the perimeter will feature Wyatt Sonderman and Cameran Loyd as primary targets.

In the backfield, Makhari Bodiford is back after a 1,582 yard and 20-touchdown junior season and will be running behind a star-powered offensive line that only got better after the arrival of UGA-commit and towering offensive tackle Daniel Calhoun from Centennial. Walton is expected to have 15 Division I signees in this senior class and the defensive side of the ball is also returning a tremendous cast of playmakers and prospects. Jordan “Bam” Bride is a newcomer that will provide elite pass coverage and tackling in the Walton secondary and the linebacking corps is led by seniors Ashton Woods and Wendell Gregory, who both are physical and capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways. Gregory is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound four-star committed to South Carolina and Woods is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and pledged to go to North Carolina.

Grayson will also have a roster filled with collegiate talent and this game will mark the head coaching debut for 28-year-old Santavious Bryant—who previously served as a coordinator at Grayson and was on Gainesville’s staff last season. At quarterback Jeff Davis is returning for his senior year and is coming off a strong junior campaign that saw him throw for 2,242 yards and 15 touchdowns. All-American senior running back Dylan Elder will star in the backfield and the receiving corps will have John Cineas and Kylan Fox at tight end. Fox is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound mismatch that will also provide the Rams with all-state playmaking at defensive end. Fox is a four-star prospect committed to the University of Central Florida and is the No. 8 rated senior athlete in the country and No. 18 overall prospect in the state. Fellow four-star Waltclaire Flynn Jr. will also be going to UCF after this season and will be lining up on the offensive line with his 6-foot-2, 305-pound frame.

Grayson’s defensive reputation has been a staple during the 100-plus victories the program has achieved in just the past decade and will star sophomore linebacker Tyler Atkinson—who proved to be one of the best linebackers in the state last year as a freshman. Atkinson finished last season with 112 total tackles and 22 tackles for loss and will be key to stopping Walton’s balanced offensive attack with his speed and pursuit. The Rams will also feature three-star Nasir Smith on the defensive line and three-star athlete Myles Wood in the secondary after he tallied 76 tackles and five pass breakups last year. Wood also can contribute as an explosive slot receiver and impact player on special teams.

Corky Kell + Dave Hunter Classic Schedule:

Saturday, Aug. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

10:00 a.m.- Marietta vs. Norcross

1:00 p.m.- Brookwood vs. McEachern

4:00 p.m.- North Gwinnett vs. Mill Creek

7:00 p.m.- Walton vs. Grayson