Photo: JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Carver Panthers vs. Cherokee Warriors
When Carver and Cherokee meet to kick off the 29th edition of the Corky Kell Classic, the collective eyes of the sports world will be on them. The uniqueness of this matchup will undoubtedly garner greater attention as the first high school football game to take the field in the state, and most of the nation, following an uncertain spring and summer as the world weathers the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s difficult for you as a coach and getting all these kids organized in a safe manner,” said Cherokee head coach Josh Shaw. “But then, you know, it is always exciting to prepare for a season opener.”
Shaw took over the Cherokee program in 2012 and last season’s 8-4 finish and a loss in the second round of the playoffs was his most successful season leading the Warriors just two years removed from an 0-10 season in 2017.
Returning experience will likely produce a more-successful season in 2020.
On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback AJ Swann, a rising junior, will lead Cherokee. Last season, Swann was 188-of-314 passing for 2,399 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore. Behind Swann, junior Keith Adams Jr. controls the backfield. In 2019, he had 231 carries for 1,115 yards and 10 touchdowns with five 100+ yard games.
“And he’s powerful. I mean, he is 5-9, 195 pounds as a 15-year-old and he’s got huge tree trunk legs,” Shaw said of Adams. “He is patient enough to wait for his blocks to open. He has got tremendous cutback ability.”
On the defensive side, senior linebacker Bryson Parker will lead things. In 2019, he made 94 solo tackles, 74 assisted tackles with seven tackles for loss. His 168 total tackles set a school record and led the team ahead of senior Brandon Byrd (128 tackles).
“We’re led on defense by our senior linebacker Bryson Parker,” Shaw said. “He had a school-record tackles last year and he has been a two-year starter for us. This will be his third year and he also was second on the team in sacks last year. He runs from sideline to sideline, so he is all over the field. He is a tremendous leader. And so he’ll be the anchor on defense.”
On the other side of the field, Carver is coming off a 7-4 finish and a first-round exit in the Class AAAAA playoffs in head coach Darren Myles’ 15th season. Entering 2020, Carver has spent time like many other programs in the state, preparing for the unknown and getting reacclimated to regular activities.
“Our focus has not necessarily been about the first game,” Myles said. “It has just been about getting the guys acclimated to working out and getting them in condition to practice for a football game. Nothing against Cherokee, because we are thinking about them too, but we are working on us now. As a staff, we understand that we have a challenge ahead. We are feeling great about being able to participate in a classic such as the Corky Kell.”
One part of Carver’s offensive scheme that will need attention is the vacancy left by Jo’quavious Marks’ graduation. Marks finished his senior year in 2019 with 162 carries for 1,519 yards and 23 touchdowns to anchor the Panther rushing attack. Rising junior Jarveous Brown and rising senior Bobby Sims return with experience in the backfield. Brown carried the ball 59 times for 352 yards and four touchdowns last season. Sims had 39 carries for 336 yards and three touchdowns.
No matter the outcome of the Panthers and Warriors much anticipated matchup, there is no question that both teams will be looking for takeaways to help shape the remainder of their 2020 seasons. Still, any sort of win to start the season could be the spark needed to ignite the fire under each of these teams.