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Norcross heavy favorite to repeat as state champs

File Photo Norcross' Lorenzo Carter (25) closes in on a Lovejoy runner during the state championship game at the Georgia Dome. Carter is one of the nation's top recruits in the 2014 class.

File Photo Norcross' Lorenzo Carter (25) closes in on a Lovejoy runner during the state championship game at the Georgia Dome. Carter is one of the nation's top recruits in the 2014 class.

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Will Norcross repeat as football state champions?

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File Photo Norcross' Myles Autry runs the ball up field during a game last season.

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File Photo Norcross' Kevin Mouhon attempts to tackle a player during a game last season.

Over the last 40 years, only a handful of schools have repeated as state champions in the highest classification.

Norcross will try to join that elite club this season.

The defending Class AAAAAA state champs return 16 of 22 starters, making it the heavy favorite to repeat.

"The kids know they've got a target on their back," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. "We're approaching it like any other offseason."

Camden County (2008-09), Lowndes (2004-05), Parkview (2000-02), Valdosta (1989-90) and Thomasville (1973-74) were the last schools to repeat as state champs.

Grayson won the state title in 2011 and went into last season as the heavy favorite. The Rams were nationally ranked and featured the nation's top college prospect, but lost in the second round of the state playoffs.

It's a similar situation with Norcross, which is expected to begin the year ranked in the top 10 in several national polls and features one of the nation's top players.

"Our guys have done a good job handling success," Maloof said. "You have to manage success like you do failure."

The offense lost just three starters, although they were major contributors in center Joseph Ledford, quarterback Joseph Wilber and running back Alvin Kamara. Wilber was an all-state selection and Kamara signed with Alabama.

Norcross rotated seven offensive lineman last year, so replacing Ledford with someone with experience won't be too hard. Calub Crum will take over at center where he will join Blake Wood, Horatio Walker, Ryan Northrup and Trenton Jenkins and tight end Emanuel Aka.

"The big key for us is having all our offensive line back," Maloof said. "It makes it a lot easier."

Milton transfer A.J. Bush, Griffin Barker and Jacob Gassert will continue to battle for the starting quarterback job this summer. Bush started 12 games for Milton last year and led it to the state playoffs. He has scholarship offers from several Division I schools. Jibri Hicks and K.D. Garrett will share carries at running back with athlete Myles Autry.

Autry played in the state championship with a torn ACL and had surgery in January. The Division I recruit didn't go through spring drills. He's not expected to participate in any drills during the summer until practice starts.

"He's almost ready," Maloof said.

The defense has seven starters back, led by Lorenzo Carter. The defensive end is the No. 2 recruit in the state. Linebacker Kevin Mouhon is also highly recruited at linebacker.

The group's biggest challenge will be replacing two cornerbacks and finding two more defensive linemen.

"The thing is it's good and bad we have a lot of returning players," Maloof said. "The good part is we have a lot of experience. The bad is you worry about them being complacent. If we can get over that hump, we'll be fine."

Norcross will find out pretty quickly what kind of team it has when it opens with Florida state champion Booker T. Washington. The Blue Devils play Region 8-AAAAAA power Parkview and Region 7-AAAAAA runner-up North Gwinnett the following two games.

"We're starting on a big stage," Maloof said. "We'll know in a hurry."