The Hillgrove Hawks have been a pipeline of tremendous players to matriculate on to BCS programs. Synjyn Days started the trend, quickly followed by Jabari Hunt-Days and John Silas. Perhaps the biggest talent to come out of the Cobb County power is Kenyan Drake, a game-changer who last year carried the ball 173 times for 1,610 yards and 18 scores. He also hauled in another 315 yards and five touchdowns through the air as the Hawks went undefeated en route to the Region 4-AAAAA title. In fact, the gameplan for Hillgrove head coach Phil Ironside the last two seasons was just find a way to get the ball into the hands of Drake as the Hawks rattled off 21 wins over that stretch.
But with Drake suiting up for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, Ironside will turn to a stable of backs to take over as well as some wide receivers to carry the offense.
"We'll split the touches around," said Ironside. "We did that when (Drake) was here last year."
Drake and his top backup Ike Erege have both moved on, but Ironside has some capable replacements in store for the offense. Junior Richardre Bagley and Bakari Oxendine will see some time in the backfield for the Hawks as Hillgrove will attempt to win the first-ever Region 4-AAAAAA title against the likes of region foes Marietta, North Cobb, South Cobb and McEachern.
"We don't make a big deal over region titles," said Ironside. "We've only been playing varsity football for four years, so we're still relatively new."
The quarterback Elijah Ironside will have multiple options to work with on the perimeter in Omar Black, Justin Denton and Evan Engram. Engram (6-foot-3) will play tight end at the next level for Ole Miss in 2013 while Black (6-foot-3, 174 pounds), just a junior, will be the big-play threat on the outside for the Hawks. Black recently captured MVP honors at the Schuman's National Underclassmen football combine in Lexington, Ky.
Defensively, the Hawks will be led by Tolando Cleveland, one of the top cornerback prospects in the state who has already committed to Georgia Tech.
"We have all of our secondary back," said Ironside. "And they all started as sophomores."
Ironside said the key for the remainder of summer practice is to replace the depleted linebacking corps and finding depth on the defensive line.
Hillgrove opens up the season at Westlake then faces Lassiter at McEachern in the inaugural Battle of I-75: East/West Cobb Showdown.
Ironside said the East/West Cobb Showdown is a nice chance to show off the county.
"The (Showdown) will be good for all four teams involved," said Ironside. "McEachern has the best facilities in the county."
After the two non-region games, Anthony Jennings and Marietta await at historic Northcutt Stadium, and the Blue Devils will be out for revenge early after falling to the Hawks 48-8 last year.
"We'll get a good test early on," said Ironside. "We've got a good regular season schedule. It is really important to get off to a good start to stay atop the region."