KICKOFF 2012: All eyes on Albany

Leading the way for the Indians all year — in the field and in the locker room — will be senior QB Emmanul Byrd, who was thrust into the starting role as a freshman and has continued to grow, improve and thrive in the Indians’ offense. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Leading the way for the Indians all year — in the field and in the locker room — will be senior QB Emmanul Byrd, who was thrust into the starting role as a freshman and has continued to grow, improve and thrive in the Indians’ offense. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Counting down to kickoff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s in-depth look at ALBANY HIGH marks the 24th of 26 prep football season previews that will appear in the sports section during the final few days as we count down to Kickoff 2012. On Thursday, we’ll take a closer look at WESTOVER. Enjoy!

ALBANY — How well are things going for Albany High?

“Pretty well. We even had a kid from Sherwood transfer into the school,’’ said Albany High football coach Felton Williams with a smile. “Talk about the ball bouncing the other way. Three years ago, it was the great exit, and three years later the missing link shows up.’’

Don’t blame Williams from smiling at the thought.

It was three years ago when former Albany High football coach Reggie Mitchell, who is no longer coaching in these parts, left Albany High and took a ton of the talent with him to Sherwood Christian Academy.

Williams had to scramble and was forced to start freshmen and sophomores that year, but his Indians have climbed out of that hole and have improved every season. With a little luck, Albany High, which played in arguably the toughest Class AA region in the state, would have made the playoffs last year.

Williams plans on making it to the postseason this year.

It won’t be easy, especially after Albany High made the leap up in classification to Region 1-AAAA, where the Indians will play the other three Dougherty County public schools, as well as state powerhouse Cairo, Worth County, Crisp County and Americus-Sumter.

And the rest of the teams in 1-AAAA had better be ready. Because every secondary in the region is about to meet Emmanul Byrd.

Byrd was forced into a starting role at quarterback when he was just a freshman, but he takes the field this season as a four-year starter with an even stronger arm and more confidence than a year ago when he completed 83 percent of his passes for more than 1,900 yards and nine TDs.

“We’re really not worried about the classification (jump),’’ Byrd said. “We just have to get better every day and do what we do. People are talking about us moving up, and people have their opinion, but as a team we feel like we can compete with any of those teams. We have confidence in ourselves.’’

A playoff appearance this season would complete the total turnaround for those freshmen who were thrown in the fire after the exodus of players three years ago.

“I feel real good about the seniors we have,’’ Byrd said. “We have been through a lot and now we’re seniors, and this is our last time. It comes down to how bad we want it. I feel I have to go out and put it all out there for the team.

“I love having the ball in my hands. I like being able to control the situation. I know I can help by being a leader this year. I want this to be our year.’’

Williams knows Byrd needs to have a big year, and he’s planning on letting his quarterback — and the ball — fly.

“I’m not going to sit here with that strong arm and not use it,’’ Williams said. “You don’t see that kind of arm too often. We’re going to use his (talent) to benefit him and this team. We’re expecting a big year from him. It has to be his year, he’s a four-year starter.

“You can see how much he has grown as a quarterback. We’re going to throw a whole lot. We’re going to do what we do best — throw it. If you stop it, you stop it, but we’re going to throw the ball. (Byrd) is ready to take off.’’

Albany High linebacker Juwon Young, one of the top defensive players in this part of the state, was even more adamant about Byrd’s abilities.

“He’s going to have a big year,’’ Young said. “He’s such a good quarterback, and he will lead the team.’’

Byrd will have one of his favorite targets back. Rantiez Williams, a Herald All-Area tight end last season, returns after making 29 receptions for 401 yards and scoring seven touchdowns. His numbers might double this season.

Andrico Carter, one of the top defensive backs in Southwest Georgia, will lead the secondary, but Williams is also going to use Carter, who had eight interceptions last year, as a receiver, and Williams and Carter will be Albany’s 1-2 punch. The third pair of hands belongs to that Sherwood transfer, Vashon Gaines, a talented senior who will play receiver and defensive back for the Indians.

The biggest question going into the season is how much time will Byrd have to throw? Albany High didn’t just lose two of the best linemen in Southwest Georgia, the Indians lost the hearts and souls of the team when Roscoe Byrd (Emannul’s older brother) and Jontavious Morris graduated. They were huge, physical and talented linemen who started both ways and were two-year co-captains of both the football and basketball teams.

“It’s a tremendous loss. You don’t replace two kids like that. You hope you can find two kids who are half as good,’’ Felton Williams said.

“The biggest problem is replacing their leadership. Their leadership speaks volumes for who they were and what they meant to this team. It’s hard to find leaders.’’

Right now, Williams will settle for some blockers. He spent camp trying to put together an offensive line to protect Byrd.

“We came into the spring and summer with the assumption that Byrd will have to get most of his passes off within three seconds,’’ the coach said. “We know given four or five seconds what he can do. We have to give him a chance.

“We know teams are going to blitz us. We know people are not going to sit back and let him throw.’’

The Indians return one starter on the line, senior center Antonio Spann (5-foot-10, 250 pounds). Guards Darius Banks ( 5-10, 240) and tackle Earl McKinney (5-10, 230) both played last year as sophomores and will be counted on this season. Two big newcomers could make a difference at the tackle spots: CoRandon Lumpkin (6-5, 265), a junior, and Quantavious Cameron (6-5, 290), a senior.

“The biggest question mark is our offensive line,’’ Williams said. “We feel good about our team.’’

Williams has plenty of depth at the running back spot and hopes his line will grow to give his young backs the room to balance the offense.

Quentin Sapp, a sophomore, returns at running back, and Williams said he has a lot of young talent to put in his backfield, including freshman Jonathan Jefferies (5-9, 180).

“He’s that freshman that you don’t see too often,’’ Williams said. “Every now and then you will get a freshman who is not only physically ready to play on Friday nights but is ready mentally. He’s got the footwork and the speed and the right mental attitude.’’

The Indians also will use junior Quontravious Broussard and sophomore Keyshawn Powell in the backfield, and everyone will be expected to catch the ball.

AHS is looking for a big lift on defense, and Young, the guy who will lead the Indians, is already being looked at by several big-time college programs, including Auburn and Florida. Young is moving from defensive end to LB, and he will play from sideline to sideline.

“I want to let him run free and hit people,’’ Williams said. “I know he will lead us in tackles.’’

Young has already predicted he’ll lead the team in tackles and said he wants to be the Herald’s Player of the Week every week this season. He’s 6-3 and 230, has quick feet and hits hard. He is the complete package at linebacker and is looking forward to having a monster season after coming on strong last year as a sophomore. He made 100 total tackles, including 20 for a loss to go along with nine sacks.

“I have grown a lot from last year,’’ Young said. “I’ve gotten stronger and smarter, working on my technique — just working on little things to make myself better. I want to have a great season.’’

Young will anchor a defense that includes Carter, who will lead the secondary along with Broussard and Shydarrius Jackson. Other key members of the defense include senior defensive end Ishmael Marshall (6-0, 200), junior defensive tackle Bre’On Robinson (5-9, 245) and junior linebacker Malcolm Hayes (5-9, 180).

It could be the breakout year for the Indians.

“We’re lacking a little on the offensive line, but I believe they have come a long way, and the offensive line can help each other (as the season goes along). I think we will be better on defense this year than we were last year,’’ Young said.

Even without Roscoe Byrd and Jontavious Morris, Albany has a chance to be even better this year, especially if Emmanul Byrd plays to his potential.

“We have good seniors, and we have some young guys stepping up,’’ Emmanul Byrd said. “We’ve got a good nucleus coming back, and we’ve got good chemistry. Everybody wants this to be a big year.’’

Albany High's 2012 season outlook

MASCOT: Indians.

HEADLINE: Felton Williams (3rd season as head coach at Albany, 3rd season overall; 7-23 career record).

2011 RECORD: 4-6.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Kenneth Taylor (offensive coordinator/QBs); Chadwick Pope (OL); Grady Vance/Charles Chatmon (WRs); Brian Hodge/Ralph Wilson (RBs); Mitchell Jenkins (defensive coordinator/LBs); Jesse Jackson (DL); Archie Chatmon (DBs); Andrew Williams (WRs).

RETURNING STARTERS: Darius Banks (Sr., OL/DL); Emannual Byrd (Sr., QB/DB); Andrico Carter (Sr., WR/DB); Rantiez Williams (Sr., WR/LB); CoRandon Lumpkin (Jr., OL/DL); Juwon Young (Jr., LB/OL); Ishmael Marshall (Sr., TE/DE); Bre’On Robinson (Jr., OL/DL); Antonio Spann (Sr., OL/DL); Malcolm Hayes (Jr., RB/LB).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Vashon Gaines (Sr., WR/DB); Quontravious Broussard (Jr., RB/DB); Shydarrius Jackson (Jr., WR/DB); Dontavious Heath (So., TE/DE); Adarius Mingo (Fr., TE/LB); Jonathan Jefferson (Fr., RB/LB).

PLAYERS IN COLLEGE OR HIGHER: Jontavious Morris (Fr., DT, UAB); Roscoe Byrd (Fr., OL, UAB); Christian Turner (So., OT, ASU).

2012 Albany High Indians' schedule

Friday at Greenville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 7 at Lee County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 at Mitchell County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 vs. Americus-Sumter, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 vs. Monroe, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 12 at Dougherty, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Cairo, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 vs. Worth County, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 2 at Crisp County, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 10 vs. Westover, 7:30 p.m.

-- BOLD denotes GHSA Region 1-AAAA game