Prep football storylines: Change in the air

·6 min read

Jul. 25—Change is a theme headed into the 2022 high school football season, whether because of realignment, teams moving on without difference-maker players who graduated or coaching changes.

Teams that didn't have spring practice had the option to start practice this week, and some will. With teams practicing and Calhoun County Quarterback Club Media Day set for Friday at Anniston Country Club, here's a look at 12 storylines:

1. Realignment: Oxford

Oxford finished 7-5 with a region championship in year one under Sam Adams, a major accomplishment, considering graduation and transfer losses that cost the Yellow Jackets 42 players before Adams ever coached a game. The new two-year realignment cycle put Oxford back in a region with powers like Pinson Valley and Clay-Chalkville, the tough neighborhood Oxford navigated before Adams.

Oxford lost 11 seniors, including Florida signee Miguel Mitchell, but returns seven starters on defense and eight on offense, including quarterback/Auburn baseball commit Sam Robertson. The Yellow Jackets also started four freshmen and one eighth-grader last year, and they bring more experience to the new region.

Oxford will wear new gold helmets into the new region.

2. Graduation: Alexandria

Alexandria finished 11-1 in 2021,including an unbeaten regular season, but lost quarterback/receiver/defensive back Javais McGhee, the Class 4A-6A Calhoun County football player of the year. The Valley Cubs lost seven starters on offense and eight on defense, including all-state defensive lineman Braxton Tucker, all-state offensive lineman/South Alabama signee Damon Parr and all-state linebacker Jake Upton.

Antonio Ross, the last of 2020's "three-headed monster" and 2021's "Four Horsemen," will lead a reset season under fifth-year coach Todd Ginn.

3. Graduation: Clay Central

Clay Central finished 9-3 with another region title in 2021, but lost 15 of 22 starters. Three return on offense, four on defense. Losses include all-state running back Elisha McNeil and all-state defensive lineman E.J. Simmons.

Hall-of-fame coach Danny Horn faces a rebuild, but the coach with eight state titles and a record 55-game winning streak to his credit has rebuilt a few times.

4. Realignment: the 3A pack

Perhaps the most disappointing consequence of reclassification and realignment is that it sent what were Calhoun County's six Class 3A schools separate ways. They're no longer in the separate region, playing most of their road games within the county and guaranteeing county-on-county matchups most Friday nights.

Piedmont and Ohatchee stayed north. Saks, Weaver and Wellborn went south. Pleasant Valley bumped down to 2A, with no county teams in its region.

At least area fans will see county-on-county clashes in non-region play, including Anniston's Sept. 22 game at Piedmont. Ohatchee will play at Saks on Aug. 19, Wellborn at home on Aug. 26 and at Jacksonville on Sept. 23. Wellborn will play host to Anniston on Aug. 19. Weaver will play host to Donoho on Aug. 19 and Pleasant Valley on Oct. 28, and Pleasant Valley will play host to Donoho on Aug. 26.

5. Graduation: the 4A pack

The 4A region involving Anniston, Cleburne County, Handley, Jacksonville, Munford and White Plains remains largely intact, with Talladega replacing Cherokee County. The three returning playoff teams in that mix ... Handley, Jacksonville and Anniston ... also return a majority of their starters.

They lost notable playmakers however. Antonio Kite, a 4A back-of-the-year finalist in 2021, has begun his climb on Nick Saban's depth chart, at Alabama. Handley lost running back and Troy signee Tae Meadows. Jacksonville lost leading rusher Jae-Taj Morris and leading receiver Jacoby Zackery.

Big-armed quarterbacks Cannon Kyles (Handley), Jim Ogle (Jacksonville) and Kam Sandlin (Anniston) lead the intriguing returnees and should make this region fun to watch in 2022.

6. Graduation: Piedmont

Senior quarterback Jack Hayes, already one of Calhoun County's most decorated players, returns as the player face of a program that's reached the semifinals each of the past seven years, with four state titles and a runner-up finish in that stretch, but the Bulldogs have key losses to replace around him.

They lost all-state wide receiver Austin Estes, all-state defensive back and key receiver in big games Omarion Foster, all-state offensive lineman Steven Raney, all-state defensive lineman Noah Reedy and all-state linebacker Landon Smart.

7. Graduation/coaching: Ohatchee

In the first full season under head coach Chris Findley, who took over for Scott Martin midseason in 2021, Ohatchee has a lot to replace, notably quarterback and 2,000-yard rusher Eli Ennis. Though he took the quarterback's snaps, he made all-state as a running back, partly because 3A was rich in quarterbacks last season. He was the top go-to option, and there wasn't a close second.

Ohatchee also lost top defender Wyatt Reaves, another all-state pick. If something happened behind the line of scrimmage, Reaves was usually involved. He was a major difference maker on defense.

Findley has a large sophomore class this season, with veterans sprinkled in to help him find production that graduated.

8. Graduation/realignment: Saks

The core that played as sophomores, partly because of injuries, delivered as juniors and seniors. The core of Sean Parnell, Jalen McCants, Shon Elson, Deniro Goode and Braelan Robinson, all all-state players in 2021, got the Wildcats to within a breath of the 3A title game.

They went 21-6 as juniors and seniors, including a 5-2 playoff record, and now they've graduated.

As it was in 2019, Jonathan Miller, one of the county's finest head coaches, finds himself with a roster reset.

Being realigned south means he won't have to knock heads with Piedmont and Ohatchee, at least.

9. Realignment: Wellborn

After going through a huge roster reset in 2021, Wellborn returns a veteran team that started 0-3 then won five in a row to make the playoffs.

The Panthers also realigned south, in the same region with Saks and Weaver, and won't have to contend with Piedmont and Ohatchee in region play.

10. Realignment: Weaver

Weaver also moved south, and a team that broke a 21-game losing streak last season is more experienced this season.

Second-year head coach Gary Atchley said the Bearcats have had a strong offseason, driven by the fact that they're "tired of losing." Could this be the year that the left side of the win-loss column gets a greater-than sign for the first time since 2018?

11. Realignment: Pleasant Valley

Perhaps Pleasant Valley benefits most from realignment. Not that the Raiders play in a weak 2A region; Cleveland was state runner-up in 2021, and Southeastern made the quarterfinals. Still, anything has to be better than battling Ohatchee, Piedmont, Saks and Wellborn for a 3A playoff spot every season.

Maybe this is the year that eight-year coach Jonathan Nix, a much better head coach than his record at Pleasant Valley shows, sees reward for his dedication and produces Pleasant Valley's first playoff appearance since 2010.

12. Coaching: Donoho. etc.

Jeremy Satcher takes over for Mark Sanders at Donoho after the Falcons struggled through two seasons marred by injuries and COVID-19.

Then there's the Scott Martin factor in 3A, Region 6, which he shares with Piedmont and his former employer, Ohatchee. Now at Glencoe, Martin turned Ohatchee into a winner with his "Ugly Eagle Offense," and the Indians have been a force from the second half of 2015 forward. He plans to run the same offense at Glencoe, which has won three or fewer games every season since 2015.

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.