There’s no denying Monroe’s Charles Stafford has been one of the best QBs in Southwest Georgia the last two seasons — and he’s only a junior this year. Stafford passed for a mind-boggling 2,564 yards and 23 touchdowns and was named the Region 1-AAA Player of the Year. He returns with tons of talent around him this year, and for all those reasons the Nadas start the season as The Herald’s No. 1 team in the Fab 5 Poll. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

There’s no denying Monroe’s Charles Stafford has been one of the best QBs in Southwest Georgia the last two seasons — and he’s only a junior this year. Stafford passed for a mind-boggling 2,564 yards and 23 touchdowns and was named the Region 1-AAA Player of the Year. He returns with tons of talent around him this year, and for all those reasons the Nadas start the season as The Herald’s No. 1 team in the Fab 5 Poll. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Forget the pep talks.

Put the blackboard down, and don’t even waste time with the Xs and Os.

First things first at Monroe High.

Coach Charles Truitt has a bigger problem. He has to convince his kids they are the best team to ever come through Monroe, and at the same moment make them realize that statement means nothing.

Tricky?

You bet, but that’s what Truitt faces as his Tornadoes enter the season with the kind of expectations that can make a team soar or see the same team crash and burn.

“I sat them down and told them, “We haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t accomplished anything,’ ” Truitt said. “I keep hearing we’re the favorite (in the region), but we shouldn’t be the favorite.

“If anybody is the favorite, it’s Cairo. If we can get to the level they’re at, that would be saying something. They set the standard for everyone.’’

What Monroe has done is catch the attention of everyone in this part of the state.

The Tornadoes did that when they shocked just about everyone in Georgia by upsetting state power Baldwin, 12-9, in the first round of the Class AAA state playoffs last year and then almost knocking off state-ranked Gainesville, falling, 16-13, in the final minutes to a team that was averaging more than 40 points a game and steamrolling everyone.

And both of those games were on the road.

Now 15 starters are back from that Monroe team, including junior quarterback and reigning Region 1-AAA Player of the Year Charles Stafford, and a pair of Division 1 prospects: offensive lineman Hakeem “Wal-Mart” Porter and linebacker Anthony Smith. Porter and Smith are both four-year starters.

“Monroe is loaded,’’ Crisp County coach Lee Campbell said. “And their quarterback is something else.’’

Even city rivals have to respect Monroe’s team.

“Their quarterback is special,’’ Westover coach Octavia Jones said. “And what makes him really special is that he’s a junior.’’

It’s hard to believe Stafford is so young. He threw for 2,564 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore, and was named to the Herald All-Area Team.

This year, he was maybe the easiest choice as a Herald Dynamite Dozen player.

He’s back, but he’s not the same player.

“He’s a lot better than he was last year,’’ Truitt said. “People can’t believe how much better he is this year. He’s that much better. He’s so much stronger, and he has so much more confidence. He can make every throw.’’

And Stafford, who is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, has grown up in other ways, too.

“He’s a low-key kid, but he has taken over a lot of the vocal leadership this year,’’ Truitt said. “He’s a joy to coach. He’s such a great kid, and he’s so humble. He’s the first one here and the last to leave, and he’s not quiet like he used to be. He’s the leader, and the kids have confidence in him.’’

Smith, a fellow Dynamite Dozen selection who leads the defense, is just glad he doesn’t have to face Stafford on Friday nights.

“I have the highest accolades for him that I can give,’’ Smith said. “He’s a junior, and he’s taken the leadership role on this team, and everyone on this team believes in him. He’s out there every day making NFL throws. You give him four seconds, and he will make you pay. That’s all he needs — four seconds — and he’ll make the play.’’

Stafford can pick teams apart or go deep all night long, and his favorite receiver is back. Kevin Williams led the team in receptions (83), yards (943) and touchdowns (11) and he is expected to improve on all those numbers this year as a senior. The Tornadoes are also excited about junior receiver Devontavis Campbell (6-3, 200).

Last year’s team was loaded with a lot of junior class talent, and Monroe brings back seven starters on offense and eight more on defense.

Porter, who is being looked at by a long list of colleges — including Georgia, Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Central Florida and UAB — is a two-time Herald Dynamite Dozen player who leads the offensive line that includes three-year starter Marcus Coe and two-year starter Kimbrel Jones, both of whom are seniors. Porter and Coe also played on the defensive line last year.

“This offensive line could be one of the best we’ve had,’’ said Truitt, who is entering his eighth season as head coach.

The offensive line has been a staple for the past two years and is expected to be even better this season. Injuries slowed down the Tornadoes a year ago, but after getting a bye week late and healing up a bit, Monroe stormed into the playoffs by beating Westover on the final day of the regular season to slip into the final spot. They got in on a tiebreaker by beating Crisp County on points-differential, and then went on the road and played like a state powerhouse.

That’s the attitude these kids bring back.

“Our first goal is to get our team chemistry up,’’ said Porter, who had a remarkable 32 pancake blocks last season. “We know this can be a great team. We know what it takes to get (to the playoffs) but we want to be the best team that has ever played at Monroe.

“Since we were in ninth grade, people starting saying we could be the best team to ever come through at Monroe. I know we can be the best ever at Monroe.’’

Believe it or not, Monroe, which opened in 1947, has never been past the second round of the playoffs, and only two teams in Monroe’s history have gone 10-2 (Truitt’s 2006 team and former coach and current Westover principal William Chunn’s 1996 team).

“We want a state championship this year,’’ said Smith, who led Monroe last year with 114 tackles, including 21 for loss. “The (playoff experience) helped us last year, but we have put (how it ended) behind us and have goals this year. We had a good chance to win that game (against Gainesville). We got to the second round, but we want to go further.’’

The defense led the way, and eight starters are back, including defensive back Ernest Davis, who had eight interceptions as a sophomore then sat out his junior year with an injury. Cornerback Jawaski Randle (a four-year starter), safety Tevon Warren and cornerback Keonte Franklin are also back in what should be on of the best secondaries in Southwest Georgia. Monroe also returns linebacker Devontay Stephens, defensive end Tim McCray and tackle Cortez Banks, and — of course — Porter and Coe are back to help along the defensive line. But Truitt would like to avoid starting anyone both ways.

The offense lost Devine Noel, who did a little bit of everything in the runing back/slot-back spot, but Truitt brings back his fullback and son, Brent Truitt, a tough and physical sophomore. Chris Young, who was at Monroe as a freshman and moved to Alabama last year, is back and will be the featured running back as a junior. Darryl Brown and Randle will also run the ball.

“We will miss Devine,’’ Truitt said. “But these kids can get the job done.’’

That’s the idea at Monroe. Everyone wants to get the job done — and do it better than any team at Monroe.

Truitt has plenty of talent and a tough schedule that begins tonight on the road against Brooks County, one of the best teams in Southwest Georgia. But make no mistake: Class AA Brooks can play with any team in this part of the state, regardless of class. Brooks beat Monroe’s playoff team, 21-12, last year.

“We have a tough schedule,’’ Truitt said. “And we know this team hasn’t done anything yet. But we feel real good about this team. We want to get back to the playoffs. That playoff run we had last year should help us this year. We got a chance to compete against schools they had heard of, schools that were known around the state and had been in the playoffs every year.

“We want to play against those schools. We want to get to the point where we get state recognition. Doing what we did last year gives us confidence. You have to have the confidence that you can beat anybody. I think we have it now.’’


Monroe's 2012 season outlook

MASCOT: Tornadoes.

HEAD COACH: Charles Truitt (8th season as head coach at Monroe).

2011 record: 6-6.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Jesse Hunt (defensive coordinator); Billy Glanton (offensive coordinator); Travis Lockhart (WRs); Cameron Walker (OL)l; Clifford Wooden (DL); Deon Lanier (DL); Jimmy King (RBs); Scott Hall (DBs); Derrick Battle (DL).

RETURNING STARTERS: Charles Stafford (Jr., QB); Hakeem Porter (Sr., OL/DL); Anthony Smith (Sr., LB); Kelvin Williams (Sr., WR); Ernest Davis (Sr., DB); Tim McCray (Jr., DL); Marcus Coe (Sr., OL); Brent Truitt (So., FB); Devontay Stephens (Jr., LB); Tevin Warren (Jr., SS); Keonte Franklin (Sr., DB), Cortez Banks (Sr., DL); Kimbrell Jones (Sr., OL).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Kimetric Parks (So., DB); Darryl Brown (So. RB); Chris Young (So., RB); Cornelius Jenkins (So., DB); Xavier Street (Sr., DL); Devontavis Campbell (Jr., WR); Sedrick Loud (Jr.); Anthony Leroy (Fr.); Willie Jones (Jr.); Brent Glanton (So.) Willie Felton (Jr.) .

PLAYERS IN COLLEGE OR HIGHER: Bryan Chamberlain (Georgia Tech); Dontrell McMilkin (Chattanooga); Chavis Jackson (Albany State); Larry Whitfield (Albany State); Devine Noel (Savannah State).

2012 Monroe Tornadoes' schedule

Today at Brooks County, 7:30 p.m.

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

Sept. 15 vs. Fitzgerald, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 vs. Westover, 7 p.m.

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

Oct. 12 at Americus-Sumter, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 vs. Dougherty, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 at Crisp County, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 2 vs. Cairo, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9 vs. Worth County, 7:30 p.m.

--- BOLD denotes Region 1-AAAA game