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Quarterback depth of late has given the Bulldogs a senior in his first year as a full-time starter, and this year is no different.
Hayden Sphire, head coach Bob Sphire’s son, takes over the No. 1 QB job from Michael Haynes, who starred last season as a first-year starter. He hopes to duplicate the success of Haynes, who signed with Mercer.
Sphire isn’t completely untested, though. He completed 58 of 85 passes (68.2 percent) for 676 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior, filling in when Haynes missed some games late in the regular season. He also was the MVP of the Lassiter 7-on-7 Tournament this summer.
“Hayden had a great spring and summer and he really worked hard to try to make this his football team,” Bob Sphire said. “He was the consummate team player last year in his competition with Michael (for the starting job) and he understood why we went with the senior. He’s all about team first and he wants the team to win.”
The new quarterback’s transition is made easier thanks to a deep group of receivers, including Caleb Scott (pictured) and highly recruited Nate Brown, both 6-foot-3. Scott had 38 catches for 684 yards and 11 TDs last season, while Brown had 41 catches for 491 yards and nine scores.
Almonzo Brown, Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Jaye Stackhouse also are exceptional pass-catchers, and all are 6-1 or taller.
“We do have a veteran receiving corps,” Bob Sphire said. “Barring injury, we’ve got a chance to put four guys at those spots who can create matchup problems for some teams.”
The running back position also got a huge offseason boost with the addition of Chattahoochee transfer C.J. Leggett. The powerful, 5-9, 215-pounder already has a handful of top offers and a four-star rating by ESPN, which has him No. 225 on the national ESPN 300.
He’s part of a veteran group at running back that also features Wesley Edwards, Dakari White and Aaron Amin.
The offensive question is up front, where the returning starters are Dre Smith and Mitch Hyatt, one of the state’s top junior prospects. Hyatt, 6-6, 275, has offers coast to coast and was named recently as one of 20 national five-star juniors by Scout.com.
Paul Hirschmann, Jay Hearn, Adam Scruggs, Jehoshua Chang, Tyler Wilson, Eric Copeland, Keegan Cargill and D.J. Jordan are part of the group trying to fill the other three line spots.
“We lost three outstanding linemen,” Bob Sphire said. “Our center signed with Georgia Southern, our right guard signed with Georgia State and our right tackle signed with Georgia, but went to a junior college. Those three were outstanding players with a lot of talent.
“Mitch has got a ton of experience already, Dre is a great senior leader who has a real work ethic about him. He’s really a leader up front. … We’ve got a long way to go with that unit as far as meshing together. But those guys are working hard.”
The most noteworthy change on North’s football team came at defensive coordinator, where longtime Sphire assistant Mo Dixon left a void when he took a job at Byrnes (S.C.). Dixon was Sphire’s DC for 12 years, including a successful seven-year run at North.
Sphire couldn’t be more pleased with Dixon’s replacement, Robert Andrews. Andrews was the architect of Grayson’s stout defenses for the past eight years, helping the Rams to a state title in 2011 (with a shutout of Walton in the state finals).
“Robert’s done a great job of studying and learning what we do and how we do it,” Bob Sphire said. “From the first time we met, he was committed to it. Now he’s starting to make this defense his own and I trust him. He has a tremendous understanding of the game. He’s smart. He works well with the kids and the coaches.
“He understood there was a philosophical difference (between Grayson and North) from the first meeting we had. With the wing-T (offense) at Grayson, their defense kept things in front of them and that worked. We’re here to make things happen on both sides of the ball. It’s a tempo thing. We want to make things happen and get the ball back (to our offense). That works best with our offensive tempo.”
Andrews’ first North defense has some veteran leaders back, including linebacker Carter Cross and free safety Bobby Young. Those two have played key roles the past three seasons.
“Carter Cross is our inspirational leader, what high school football is all about,” Bob Sphire said. “Bobby Young is a three-year starter back there running things. … Carter and Bobby, with the experience they have, they’re out front leading the show and playing with the level of intensity you need at the AAAAAA level.”
The defensive ends also are key players, led by Dante Sawyer, one of Georgia’s top recruits. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder is a top playmaker, and his head coach is looking for more consistent play from the senior, who he said can be a “highlight film” by himself.
At the other end spot is junior Anree Saint-Amour.
“I’m looking for a big year out of Anree,” Bob Sphire said. “He has that motor. He’s always going.”
Middle linebacker Tony Bradford and cornerback Bryan Williams also are returning starters from a defense that helped North reach last year’s state quarterfinals.
One of the most important Bulldogs, according to the head coach, is the player handling all of the kicking chores, senior Michael D’Angola.
As a junior, D’Angola debuted with a game-winning field goal in the Corky Kell Classic and made four key field goals in an upset of defending state champion Grayson in the playoffs.
“He was money in the bank last year,” Bob Sphire said.
D’Angola also is one of the team’s fastest players, but don’t expect to see him catching passes. The coaching staff doesn’t want to expose him to injury, not after he made 14 of 20 field goals, converted 51 of 52 extra points and was Gwinnett’s leading AAAAAA scorer last year.
“He’s 6-2, but he’s on the thin side,” Bob Sphire said. “I don’t think I would risk him (at another position) because of all he does for us in the kicking game.”
North’s opening three-game run is perhaps the most brutal in the state, with Camden County at the Georgia Dome for the Corky Kell, a game at Grayson six days later and then the Region 7-AAAAAA opener vs. defending state champion Norcross. Those three teams have combined for four state titles the past seven seasons. “We’re just looking for our guys to go out and compete like they did last year,” Bob Sphire said. … In addition to Andrews at DC, North also made a big hire in wide receivers coach Shawn Jackson, a veteran college coach whose career includes a stint as Missouri’s recruiting coordinator and as Lindenwood University (Mo.) offensive coordinator. … North has won 10 or more games in each of the seven seasons Sphire has been head coach.