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AHS the sleeper of 1-AAAA?

Albany High quarterbacks Malik Mathis, left, and Malik Dungy work on a drill during practice this week. Mathis beat out Dungy for tonight’s season-opening start, but both will see plenty of playing time this season. (danny.aller@albanyherald.com)

Albany High quarterbacks Malik Mathis, left, and Malik Dungy work on a drill during practice this week. Mathis beat out Dungy for tonight’s season-opening start, but both will see plenty of playing time this season. (danny.aller@albanyherald.com)

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Malik Mathis

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Felton Williams

ALBANY — What do you get when you mix a hungry coach, a pair of hard-working quarterbacks (both named Malik) and one of the most sought-after senior linebackers in the country?

A team that is going catch some people off guard this year.

That’s just part of the makeup of the 2013 Albany High Indians, who return 14 starters — including University of Miami commit Juwon Young — and will kick off their season tonight at Hugh Mills Stadium against Greenville.

“This is one of those teams with not a lot of superstars, but instead we have 15 returning seniors, 14 returning starters and they’re all 100 percent committed,” fifth-year Albany High coach Felton Williams said. “We’ve closely evaluated all the positions, and at the end of the day, we feel we have a pretty good team.

“A team that might just surprise some people.”

Young’s days of catching the opposition off guard, however, are gone. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound heart of the Indians’ defense exploded on the national recruiting scene as a sophomore when he walked into summer camps at Auburn and Florida an unknown — and walked out with tongues wagging behind him. He led the Indians, who finished a disappointing 2-8 last season, with 115 tackles (including 15 for losses and three sacks) and had three fumble recoveries as a junior. And if rules allowed it, Young could probably just skip his senior season and head straight to playing on Saturdays.

That’s just how good he is.

“He’s a dream come true,” Williams said of Young, who is rated as one of the Top 20 LBs in America by all the major recruiting services. “He’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime players who is just a freak of nature. The other day in the weight room, I saw him power-clean 315 pounds. I’ve been playing football and coaching it for a long time and that was very unusual. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Miami, known as “Linebacker U,” apparently hadn’t either. Or at least not since the days of guys like UM greats Ray Lewis, Jonathan Vilma or Michael Barrow, who was actually the Hurricanes assistant who heavily recruited Young to join the Hurricanes’ storied history of fearsome linebacking greats.

“I just loved it. Everything about it,” Young said of why he chose the Miami orange and green, which are coincidentally the same colors of AHS. “I went down and visited the school, mostly to see what the academics were like, and they’ve got 10-to-1 (student to teacher) ratio, instead of 500-to-1. I already loved their football program, but (the educational aspect) did it for me.”

But before Young moves on, he wants to reach the goals set forth during his freshman year by Williams. They start with winning the city championship, then the region championship and eventually the state playoffs — a place the Indians haven’t been in 11 years.

“I’ve seen our team develop since last year a lot because of the work we put in during the offseason,” said Young, who is joined by one heck of an experienced defense with nine of those 14 total returning starters coming from that side of the ball. “I see ourselves this year … I wouldn’t put a record on it. I’ll just say this: As long as our offensive and defensive line stand up — if they hold up like they’re supposed to — we should be a pretty sturdy team up front and should be able to run the ball a lot.”

Running “a lot” in 2013, compared to throwing like crazy in 2012, is where this year’s team and last’s year’s version of the Indians will differ. In 2012, Herald All-Area quarterback and Georgia Military commit Emanuel Byrd passed for 1,420 yards and 16 touchdowns, and he also ran for 625 yards and scored six TDs on the ground; he was the heart and soul of the offense. Replacing him will be Malik Mathis, a 5-10, 175-pound sophomore who is not the only kid named Malik vying for the starting job. Malik Dungee, a junior returner on offense and defense, is even more valuable in other spots. He will be used at running back, receiver and start at defensive back, while also seeing some time under center.

Williams said he gave Mathis the starting job simply because “of his poise under center and because he had a little better command of the offense at this point and grasping what we want him to do on every down.” The coach, however, has one complaint about his young QB: he’d like him to be a little more arrogant.

No, that’s not a typo.

“He’s real introverted, and that worries me,” Williams said of Mathis, who was a standout on last year’s Indians’ JV team that finished undefeated but is known as being one the quietest guys on the team during his first season on varsity. “I need my quarterback to have some brag to him. Some arrogance. We’ll see if playing well and winning some games doesn’t give him that.”

Mathis agrees and thinks he’s close to coming out of his shell.

“I just need to get some snaps, some experience (at varsity),” he said. “I feel confident and I think my teammates are confident in me, too. I just gotta go out and prove myself.”

Mathis will have plenty of help on offense from returners like receivers Traven Jackson (Jr.) and Shydarrius Jackson (Sr.) and a stable of running backs like juniors Quinton Sapp and Jaylen Guest, as well as seniors Quantavious Broussard and Young (yes, he’s a beast at RB, too).

“Special teams, offense, defense … we’re going to use him as much as we can and wherever we can,” Williams said of Young, who enjoys running people over almost as much as he does hitting them. “If there’s a part of the game we think he can impact positively for us by putting him in there, he’ll be on the field. Like I said, he’s once-in-a-lifetime.”

Williams also didn’t hesitate to gush about two of his other expected playmakers on offense this year — Sapp and sophomore running back Jonathan Jefferson. Sapp was a burner as a sophomore, rushing for a team-high 700 yards and seven scores. The coach is hoping for huge things from his 5-10, 200-pound bruiser in 2013, but he also sounded as if those same expectations would fall on the relatively untested Jefferson (5-9, 170), who is playing his first season of varsity — but has captivated the coach’s attention during preseason practice.

“JJ is truly something. He has that it (factor) you just can’t coach, and it shows up in the weight room and on the field,” Williams said. “He’s a freak in his own class, and he does some things in practice that just make you say, ‘Whoa.’

“Sapp is that guy who can break that long run. He has speed, power and strength, and he can go for 80 or 90 yards in a flash. He’s more experienced and more elusive than JJ. One move, and Sapp is gone.”

The Indians’ defense, led by Young, also returns Dontravious Heath (Jr., DL/OL), Anthony Dunwoody (Sr., DT/FB), Breon Robinson (Sr., DT/FB), Quantavious Broussard (Sr., RB/CB) and Guest, who also plays LB.. Williams is also looking for breakout years from Keron Broussard (Fr., RB/DB), Dontravious Simpson (Fr., RB/DB) and Will Bryant (So., DB/QB).

“I like my defense, I really do,” Williams said. “When you have a second coach like Young on the field, it’s a huge plus. He gets guys where they need to be, understands what the offense is trying to do and helps us adjust, and he’s got a great group of guys playing alongside him.”

And as long as they do their job, seasons like Williams’ first four — 2-8 (2012), 4-6 (2011), 2-8 (2010) and 0-10 — should finally be a thing of the past.

“I know the records haven’t been great, but we feel very comfortable where we’re at this year. Last year, we feel like we let some games slip away, and what could go wrong, did go wrong,” the coach said. “I’ll be the first to say it: We have high expectations for this year.”

NOTES: Greenville, tonight’s season-opening opponent, beat Albany at its place, 20-18, last year to begin the season … Young says that he understands becoming “truly great” meant going that extra mile in everything he did to prepare for this season, whether that was additional reps in the weight room, or an extra hour of film session — he did it this summer. And that includes getting up at 2 a.m. sometimes, walking out of his front door and going for a run. “Yup, I’ve just been so ready for this season I’d go out running in the middle of the night,” he said. “Just sprinting up and down my street.” …. The Indians have not made the state playoffs since their 2002 season. They beat Lamar County, 21-14, in the first round, then lost to Pierce County, 35-21, in the second round. … One of Williams’ assistant coaches this year is Jesse Jackson — no, not the Rev. Jesse Jackson. However, Jackson’s father is a pastor, so that, of course, would make him Albany’s Rev. Jesse Jackson … Williams’ coaching staff this year includes Kenneth Taylor (OC); Chadwick Pope (OL); Grady Vance (WRs); Charles Chatmon (TEs); Archie Chatmon (DBs); Marcus Glass (DBs); Mitchell Jenkins (DC); and Jackson (DL) … Despite just eight wins in four season as the Indians’ head coach, Williams — a former longtime AHS assistant coach who many area Albany fans and alum lobbied for to get the job — said he stills feels “plenty of support” from the Dougherty County athletic office and the AHS fan base for his vision. “I do, I really do,” he said. “I think we’d all like to be further along than we are right now, but I still feel the support and I appreciate it. We’re getting there, no doubt.”