Tuesday night, 2011 Class AAAAA finalist Walton journeyed across Cobb County to take on the Hillgrove Hawks in a preseason scrimmage. Both Cobb County teams are coming off the best seasons in their respective programs' history, with the Raiders finishing 14-1 and the Hawks going 11-1 in 2011. Walton has proven to be a top-tier playoff team, and Hillgrove has been able to establish itself as a dangerous team in what has been the school's first few seasons.
The hosting Hawks enter 2012 without their star running back Kenyon Drake, who is now with the Alabama Crimson Tide. If last night was any indication, Hillgrove has transformed the playbook to account for his loss. The Raiders lost their two best defensive playmakers from last year in twins Zack and Daron Blaylock, who now play for the Kentucky Wildcats. Zack was also the top threat on the outside of the potent Walton offense from last year. The return of Walton's record-breaking running back Tyren Jones and the big time arm of Parker McLeod is tagging the Raiders as one of the state's top teams in 2012.
Anytime you have big name major prospects like Jones, McLeod and UGA pledge Brandon Kublanow like Walton has, it creates an opportunity for an opposing player to make a statement and gain some recognition by performing well. This attitude fueled the Hawks, and if this was indeed an exhibition bout, it would have been handed to them by a unanimous decision.
After gaining one first down on the opening possession, Hillgrove punted the ball to the dangerous Walton offense. When Walton got the ball, Hillgrove's defensive line showed right away that it had the talent to match up with the running attack and would be physical and aggressive against the run. Jones had no daylight and was swarmed in the backfield for the first three-and-out.
The Hawks got the ball back and they made the first of their three scores from more than 65 yards out of the evening by exploiting major weaknesses in this Raiders' secondary. Hawks quarterback Troy Thompson found running back Richard Bagley on a screen that broke to the outside and went for nearly 70 yards giving Hillgrove an early 7-0 lead. In 2011, it was the hard-hitting Blaylock twins coming out of the secondary with tremendous speed that chopped down any screen plays and any players before they could escape to the outside. This secondary poorly tackled and often appeared to be waiting for a linebacker to come and tackle the carrier for them.
Walton went three-and-out again, but the secondary responded this time and got the ball back after a DJ Smith interception on the Thompson pass. The offensive line continued to struggle against the Hawks in the run game, and fullback Henry Rowling fumbled after being met early in the backfield. The loose ball was picked up by Hillgrove's DyKari Hickey, and the senior cornerback sprinted and juked his way into the end zone behind a wall of blockers for a 70-yard score. Both McLeod and Jones were doing everything they could to catch and keep Hickey from the end zone, but a stampede of hyped up Hawks was able to produce the second big play of the night.
There were positives in the Raiders' offense. The line bought time for McLeod and when receivers created space, McLeod found them. The senior looked great throwing the football. Senior receiver Ryan Craig made the first of his big receptions with a 60-yard strike from the future Alabama quarterback. Hillgrove's defense would hold the Raiders and force a 47-yard field goal attempt that was nailed by Walton's Anthony Price.
Now 14-3, Marcus Bowens fumbled after a reception and Walton's Maruice Gibson recovered it deep in Hawks' territory. The Raiders quickly marched to a first and goal, and, after chipping away Jones reached the end zone on a fourth and goal run from the two. Walton's defense got the stop and got the ball back to the offense. McLeod hit Smith in stride for another monster gain. This would be the end of the night for the McLeod and the first-team offense. The second-team offense got to a first and goal, but this time, the fourth down attempt was from the six-yard line and the Raiders came up just short.
It was expected that the Hawks were going to throw the ball more without Drake in the backfield, but the magnitude of their throws and the capacity of this offense looks outstanding. The first team offense got one more series and gave the home crowd another big play as Ole Miss-bound tight end Evan Engram hauled in the Thompson pass. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Engram shook off Walton's Smith and blazed in for a big 65-yard score.
With the lead extended to 21-10, the Raiders offense would get the ball one last time before time expired. Junior backup quarterback Price Wilson made some impressive throws on the evening, none more exciting than a 70-yard touchdown as time expired to Craig. Walton quarterbacks McLeod and Wilson both did a great job of getting the ball to the open guys. This was just a scrimmage, but it was clear that both of these teams were hunting for victory.
Based on this scrimmage, Hillgrove will bring a great defense and an outstanding passing attack into the season, and the Raiders will have an armory on their side as well.
The Hawks look ready physically for a 48-minute battle when they travel to take on the Westlake Lions in the season opener Aug 24. The Raiders will have some mending to do before their matchup with the Brookwood Broncos in the Metro PCS Corky Kell Classic. Getting beat in a preseason game is nothing new for Walton as last season's historic run of 14-straight wins followed a preseason thumping that Norcross laid on them in Raider Valley.
"We are going to watch this film tomorrow and learn from it," said Walton head coach Rocky Hidalgo. "Then we are going to get after it at practice. We've got work we are going to do before the season."
The Hawks and Raiders strengthen what is going to be a talented pool of teams in Cobb County this season. With star quarterbacks McLeod, Marietta's Anthony Jennings and Lassiter's Eddie Printz in close proximity, Hillgrove is proving it has an air show of its own this year. In Week 2, Hillgrove will match up with Printz and the Trojans in the East West Showdown before Walton meets up with McEachern in the second game.