Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

Grayson head football coach Mickey Conn knows the Ram offense will enter this season without one key component from the past three seasons -- the exceptional Ean Pemberton.

Pemberton was the workhorse in Grayson's vaunted wing-T offense, piling up 4,749 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns in his career. While his fourth-down and fourth-quarter heroics will be sorely missed on Friday nights, Conn is confident this year's stable of running backs is, perhaps, deeper than ever.

"We would like to be able to run more backs (this year)," Conn said. "We were putting the ball in Ean's hands so much we couldn't even run the wing-T offense. With our misdirection, everyone knew who was getting it, but Ean was so good, they still had a hard time stopping him.

"With three good running backs, running our offense with misdirection and getting the ball in the hands of a running back that can do something with it, it's exciting."

Primarily used as a blocker last year, Devin Gillespie headlines a trio of juniors expected to replace Pemberton's production. He was the team's second-leading rusher last year, racking up 540 yards and five touchdowns for the Rams. He also clinched victories in last year's rivalry games with Parkview and Brookwood on fourth-quarter touchdown runs.

When called upon to replace a limited Pemberton in last year's first round playoff game against Marietta, he took full advantage of the opportunity, carrying the ball a game-high 26 times for 96 yards and converting three fourth downs in the game.

"Ean's a really quick back who likes to juke his defenders, but I'm more of a straight-ahead runner," Gillespie said.

Also looking to step up in Pemberton's absence this fall will be juniors Terius Watson and Korey Jones, who each rushed for more than 200 yards and five touchdowns last year. Gillespie describes Watson as a quick, shifty back similar to Pemberton. Jones, who started last year at the Z position, is expected to be a receiving threat out of the backfield with his good speed and good hands, bringing an added dimension to the Grayson offense.

"We've got a lot of depth there so I'm really excited about it," Conn said. "We will get in a lot of different formations and run a lot of different plays with wing-T blocking, option blocking and pass blocking. We feel like we can do a lot of things because our backs this year can really catch the ball."

Senior tackle Michael Young leads an offensive line that will be opening holes for Gillespie, Watson, Jones and senior fullback Ryan Braswell to run through. The challenge for Conn will be breaking in four new starters and getting them up to game speed. Junior Fred Zerblis likely will be taking over at center, but competition at both guard positions and the other tackle position remains wide open. If history is any indication, the Rams will have a tough, physical offensive line by the start of the season that will once again wear opponents down, particularly in the fourth quarter.

To prepare for an improved Region 8-AAAAA this fall, Grayson opens with a scrimmage against fellow region champion North Gwinnett. And before moving into region play, the Rams will face Kell, a playoff team from last year, in the Corky Kell Classic and Spain Park, a perennial power in Alabama's highest classification, in North Gwinnett's National Progressive Football Challenge.