(Franklin) — The Heard County Braves will travel to Mercer University in Macon this Saturday night for one of the most anticipated season opening football games in school history.
The Braves will battle the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricanes, a powerhouse program from South Georgia with at least 10 wins during 11 of the last 14 years and several deep runs in the state playoffs and two appearances in the state title game.
Coach Tim Barron and his young squad will face an immediate test in the Hurricanes which could quickly identify just how far the newest edition of Braves can make it this season.
Prognosticators around the state seem to have a lot of confidence in this year’s squad as they are currently ranked in the top 10 in several polls including a #3 ranking by the AJC, the highest ranking in the 43 year history of the team.
Coach Barron doesn’t lend a lot of credence to the early season polls.
“For us right now I think being ranked is bad. I mean we are excited that our name is out there and that is really more of a testament to the kids that played last year — because really they don’t go into a lot of details about who you graduated or how many new faces you have,” said Barron.
“I mean it is nice that people see we’ve done some good things at Heard County but at the same time this a new season and right now we have done nothing. To say we are ranked in the top ten you know we are not deserving of that– and our older kids understand that.”
This year’s Fitzgerald squad is of course highly thought of around the state as well and entered this week’s new AJC poll at #7 after an opening week 27-20 win at AAAA Worth County.
The Purple Hurricanes hope to get back on the double digit win track after going 6-5-1 in 2013 while bowing out of the second round of the state playoffs in a crushing 51-7 loss to Benedictine, an all boys school currently ranked #4 by the AJC.
While the Braves also exited state last year in a second round barn-burning 61-57 loss to Jefferson , it certainly seemed to serve notice to the rest of the state that the Braves can now compete with anyone in AA statewide.
Coach Barron hopes to avoid the fate of the last team to be ranked #3 by the AJC in the preseason, the 1991 Braves team which finished 4-6 under first year coach Eddie Payne.
Leading the Braves in 2014 will be an athlete that himself served notice in that heartbreaking loss to Jefferson. Rising senior Duranta Dunson’s state playoff rushing record of 463 yards may stand for many years and the durable back hopes to pick up right where he left off in 2013.
As expected Dunson should again be the workhorse in the backfield but for the first time in his career he won;t be receiving hand-offs from Jonathon Hunt a three year starter who graduated last spring.
Instead this season, Dunson will be taking the ball from freshman Emory Jones, a middle school standout who won the starting quarterback job during summer workouts and early practices. Jones looked proficient in the two scrimmage games throwing a TD pass to Elijah Toney in the first scrimmage and rushing in for his own score last Friday versus Greenville.
Freshman Emory Jones carries the ball towards the end zone during Friday night’s scrimmage versus Greenville. Jones will lead the Braves into this Saturday night’s opener versus Fitzgerald at Mercer University in Macon. (Photo Courtesy of Rodney East)
The first team Braves fared well in Friday night’s scrimmage knocking off the Patriots 61-12 (including 21-0 by the JV) in front of a large crowd at Staples.
Despite the seemingly lopsided blow-out on the scoreboard, Barron came out of the scrimmage with several concerns.
“You know tonight we were not mentally ready to play. We can’t have those penalties and mistakes like we did tonight. If we have those next week against Fitzgerald we will be in trouble, ” Barron said after Friday’s scrimmage.
“I was excited that when I had seen enough of the first string that the second string came in there and had the drive that they did. We have to have a great week of preparation next week to be ready for a team like Fitzgerald.”
Saturday night’s game with the Hurricanes will be the second half a doubleheader at the university as fellow Region 5-AA competitor Manchester will take on another South Georgia team in Charlton County. That game kicks at 5:00 p.m. and the Braves will kick off with the Hurricanes exactly 30 minutes after the final whistle of the first game but no sooner than 8:00 p.m.
Along with Dunson, several other players will also fill key roles in the backfield including junior Austin Barron, freshman Carlton White, and newcomer transfer from Bowdon, Pearce Kirk.
An offensive line that graduated three starters last season will only return seniors Justin Whitten and Levi Brown who will anchor the left side of the line.
The Braves do have experience returning at receiver including seniors Elijah Toney (TE) and Zack Stephens (WR).
On the defensive side of the ball the Braves have installed an entirely new defensive scheme which won’t look much different but will require a lot more concentration and new responsibilities for each defender.
Some of the new faces in the starting line-up on defense will include a transfer from Pike County outside linebacker Chandler Polk and Diamond Delgado at outside linebackers while Barron, Stephens, and Dunson all return in the defensive backfield.
Up front the defensive anchors will include Toney and Brown. Pearce Kirk, Austin Miller, White, and Jaden Moreland will also see significant playing time.
The Braves are very fortunate in the kicking department and will return both kickers from last year, Trey Wiggins and Collin Nutt.