The path to the top of the Region 7-AA mountain could be tighter than ever this season as teams work to balance out the talent they have returning to the field.

Two-time 7-AA champion Rockmart put itself on the statewide stage last year with a historic run that gave the Jackets their best season in over half a century as they came up just short of a state title.

“We understand we have a target on our back, and that’s expected. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything,” Rockmart head coach Biff Parson said. “We just have to go out, work hard and make sure our kids play Rockmart football. We cannot worry about what our opponents do, but how we can accomplish our goals.”

Now in his fourth season with the Jackets, Parson said he feels they have a good foundation to help overcome the loss of key skill players, including quarterback Dylan Bailey and the dual threat of running backs Markus Smith and Zabrion Whatley.

“We definitely have some holes to fill, but I feel like it will be more of a reload instead of a rebuild,” Parson said. “I feel like our program has grown the last three years and that has provided us the ability to do that.”

Rockmart’s experience will be in the trenches, where players like Deacon Allen and Jourdan Rachel lead an athletic group. Junior Javin Whatley, who played wingback for the Jackets last season, has been tabbed to line up behind center.

Pepperell will return quarterback Gage Moses and top receiver Payton Rhoades as well as some top defensive talent but will have some holes on the line to try and shore up before region play starts.

Chattooga, meanwhile, will be looking to replace QB Clayton Johnson and wideout Devin Price but has plenty of talent in running back Lashaun Lester and defensive end Luis Medina, the latter of which has several Division I offers.

Pepperell and Chattooga both return solid players and are sure to put pressure on Rockmart, but there are unknowns that could play into either team’s hopes of staking a claim to one of the region’s top two seeds.

First-year Model head coach Jeff Hunnicutt takes the reins of a Blue Devil squad looking for stability and has installed a spread offense during the summer. Graduation left plenty of positions open for fresh faces at both Armuchee and Coosa. There are also new head coaches at both Gordon Central and Dade County.

“You’ve got Pepperell, Rockmart and Chatooga and I think the rest of us are dark horses and can come out and be a team that could possibly challenge for the number two seed,” Coosa head coach Todd Wheeler said. “Model was a team that was very young last year that was coming on toward the end of the season. No one really knows what they’re going to look like with a new head coach and the changeover there. We’re going to be putting a lot of young kids on the field but I’m excited about the way we’ve prepared this year and the discipline we’ve shown.”

Here’s how teams across the region are shaping out for the 2019 season, in the order that Rockmart will play them this year:

Armuchee

The Yellow Jackets open region play on the road this year in Floyd County, taking on an Indians team that hasn’t bested the defending 7-AA champ in the past three years that the two teams have played.

In fact, Rockmart has scored in the past three seasons by a combined 180 points through the year, compared to Armuchee’s 40 points.

Armuchee’s second year head coach Jeremy Green is excited by the possibilities for his Indians this season however as they look to continue to rebuild.

“The only kids that are left are the ones that have bought into that culture change,” Green said to the Rome News-Tribune in recent days. “When you change the culture, your numbers drop, but then when people buy into it, they go back up. Because they believe in what you’re trying to do. I feel good about every kid that’s coming to practice because they’re living up to the things that we ask.”

The Tribe seeks to regroup this year coming off a 2-8 season, one which saw three key positions lost to graduation.

Look for Armuchee to rely just as much on new talent as seasoned leaders like senior Devin Pledger to make an impact when the two teams meet at the Reservation on Sept. 20.

Dade County

Rockmart is back home for their seond region contest, this time avoiding several hours on the road to get to Trenton.

Dade County comes into the Rock with a new head coach at the helm this year, with Dale Pruitt now in charge of the Wolverines.

It’s been a while since Dade has scored a win on the Jackets, with some 122 unanswered points scored by Rockmart over the past three meetings of the team and not a single one from the Wolverines.

Rockmart fans would have to reach back to 2009 before they would find a Rockmart loss to Dade, who wrapped up their 2018 campaign at 1-9, and picked up their only win of the season over Gordon Central.

This year, Dade looks to junior Makinley Everett to keep the Wolverines moving under center, and senior running back Makali Webb among a cast of other players to try and help them obtain better results in 7-AA.

The Jackets host the Wolverines on Sept. 27.

Chattooga

The Chattooga Indians program up in Summerville have a lot to try and overcome this season.

Head coach Charles Hammon has a tall order as he works to figure out who will take on the leadership roles in several areas, especially at quarterback after Clayton Johnson graduated with the Class of 2019.

Yet they aren’t short on talent by any stretch up in Chattooga County. Expect the Indians to look to players like junior quarterback Cash Allen and seniors like cornerback LJ Gibson, Wide Receiver and Strong Safety Dylan Woody and outside linebacker Jacoby Cottrell to fill in some of those roles with a young roster overall.

When Chattooga hosts Rockmart at the mid-season point, they’ll have faced Adairsville, Wesleyan, Heritage, Coosa and Gordon Central in a pair of region games.

The Jackets in recent history hold an advantage over the Indians in the last three seasons, winning the past two without giving up a point, and since the two started in Region 7-AA again the Jackets have outscored the Indians 121-10.

Don’t think it will be as easy this year: the Indians are coming off an otherwise good season. Chattooga finished the region in second place and made the playoffs where they finished the

Rockmart travels to Summerville for their showdown with Chattooga on October 4.

Pepperell

When October 18 rolls around, the Rockmart Yellow Jackets will be coming off a bye week and will be hungry to sting the Dragons into submission.

Though Pepperell returns quarterback Gage Moses to play under center and have top receiver Payton Rhoades to find as a target downfield, the Jackets won’t just face a tough offensive front. They’ll also have some defensive talent to overcome when they host Pepperell.

As Hurst enters his second season, he’ll have a roster mixed with youth and senior players in key positions to try and topple the 7-AA defending champs.

The Dragons are coming off a 6-5 season overall and a 5-2 in region play, but couldn’t overcome Douglass in the first round of the playoffs a third seed in 2018.

Pepperell took a 40-10 loss to Rockmart last year, and in the past five seasons have gone 3-2 against the Dragons. The past two seasons have been the best wins in recent memory for the Jackets, putting up a combined score of 106-52.

Coosa

Rockmart longstanding opponent on the schedule and in the same region since 2000 remains the Coosa Eagles, a through most of the past 18 years Rockmart has remained on top of the board in those contests.

If Coosa has a chance this year, it will be up to seniors like Malaki Martin and Jaylen Nelson to come up with big plays to stop the Rockmart offense this year.

Coosa head coach Todd Wheeler hasn’t seen his team able to stop the Jackets since Parson took over in 2016, and Rockmart has since accumulated 131 points on the scoreboard compared to the 26 that Coosa were able to put up in three games, including a 2017 shutout.

The Jackets play host to the Eagles on October 25 at the Rock.

Gordon Central

The Jackets have one final trip on the road when they face the Warriors at the start of November.

Under the new leadership of TJ Hamilton this season who comes in as a brand new head coach, Gordon Central will look to rely on talent like seniors Clayton Hogue and a seasoned running backs corps to help them push through to victory in 2019.

Well, that’s if they can get shrug off seasons past. Gordon Central comes into the season off a 3-7 finish in 2018, with their only wins coming over Gilmer, Armuchee and Model.

They haven’t had a above .500 season since 2012, when the team went 8-3 and made a first round playoff appearance.

In five seasons of play against one another, Gordon Central remains 0-6 against Rockmart. The Jackets in the last three meetings since the two returned to the same region have outscored Gordon Central 164-11, including two shutout victories in 2017 and 2016.

Rockmart heads toward Calhoun to play against Gordon Central on November 1.

Model

The Blue Devils this season have a new coach and a mainly young squad facing the Jackets, who by the time the two meet at season’s end should be either well seasoned or well done.

It starts with first-year Model head coach Jeff Hunnicutt challenge of figuring out a game plan to stop Rockmart, which Model hasn’t done since the teams played in 2001 and the Blue Devils came up with a 21-14 win.

That’s right: in the past 17 seasons, the Jackets have lost only one game to Model.

The Blue Devils will have some senior leadership to help them try and beat Rockmart at season’s end. Senior Jabari Burge comes into the season with others like AJ Woods, Cole Couey and McKinley Vaughn to round out offensive and defensive leadership positions this season.

With last season ending with then Head Coach Gordon Powers amassing a 2-8 finish in 2018 and Hunnicutt with the opportunity to help Model build back up, the game could make all the difference for the Blue Devils season if they can find a way to win.

Model wraps up their season on the road at the Rock on November 8, which is the Jackets senior night.

RN-T Sports Editor Jeremy Stewart and SJ Editor Kevin Myrick contributed to this report.

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