High expectations return to Marietta football after disappointing 2018 season

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Returning most of its star power from a 2017 state quarterfinal team, Marietta began the 2018 season ranked in the top 25 nationally of multiple national polls and No. 1 in Georgia’s Class AAAAAAA.

Things didn’t go so well, though.

Marietta’s star quarterback and wide receiver were lost to injury in late season, and two other Division I recruits never took the field, declared ineligible by the GHSA in preseason.

Marietta finished 5-6 and unranked.

“Our season ended in a disappointing way,” Marietta coach Richard Morgan said this week. “But the way they came back to work, instead of sulking, showed me we’ve got a shot to be really good. Based on the work ethic I’ve seen in the off season and the commitment and dedication, I’ve got real high expectations for this team.”

The 2019 Blue Devils have nine rising seniors ranked among the top 100 prospects in Georgia, according to the 247Sports Composite. No other Georgia school in the highest classification has more than four.

Tight end Arik Gilbert, who had 88 catches for 1,210 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, is a five-star recruit.

Quarterback Harrison Bailey, defensive end/tackle B.J. Ojulari, tackle Jake Wray and defensive back Rashad Torrence are consensus four-star prospects.

Running back Kimani Vidal, defensive back Dawson Ellington and wide receivers Taji Johnson and Kobi Stewart all have offers from ACC and SEC schools.

If a college team currently had commitments from the Marietta nine, its recruiting class would rank sixth in the country ahead of Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma, according to 247Sports.

Morgan said the attention from both media and college coaches that comes with high-profile recruits would not be a distraction.

“The reason I say that is, one, I think we do a good job of handling it, and two, most of these guys have been recruited by these colleges the last two or three years,” he said. “Our guys are really committed to the team and don’t get caught up in their own accolades. Harrison and Rashad are already committed [Bailely to Tennessee, Torrence to Florida]. That’s two less guys to worry about. So for many, this spring is going to be the end of their recruiting. We had 100 coaches in here last spring. It won’t be any different for them.”

Spring practice will begin May 2 and end with a scrimmage May 17 against defending Region 3-AAAAAAA champion Hillgrove, which trounced Marietta 48-24 in the ninth game of 2018.

Bailey was injured just before halftime of that one, and it essentially meant the end of the Blue Devils’ season. AJC Super 11 receiver Ramel Keyton, since signed with Tennessee, didn’t suit up that night because of injury. Marietta would lose to East Coweta in the first round of the playoffs two weeks later.

Torrence and Ellington, who were starters as sophomores, didn’t play all season after it was ruled they hadn’t met the GHSA’s eligibility criteria required for transfers. That left holes in the secondary, and Marietta allowed 29.6 points per game.

“The first couple of games we gave up some really big plays,” Morgan said. “I would’ve liked to have had some experienced guys back there. We got the final word [on the two players’ eligibility] a week before the game. Just knowing the defense will have those guys back at the beginning means a lot. They are hungry. Their desire and intensity will bring a different element to the defense. They have a lot of making up to do.”

On offense, Marietta will return three of its top four receivers and four of its five starters on the offensive line. Bailey, a four-year starter, threw for 2,809 yards and 29 touchdowns in 8.5 games last season.

“Minimizing injuries is a key, obviously,” Morgan said. “They caught up to us last year. I hope we can stay relatively healthy. That’s a key to winning whole thing.”

The schedule will be formidable again. Though disappointing, Marietta’s 5-6 record was deceiving. No team in Georgia, if the country, played tougher opponents week in, week out. Marietta lost to state powers Rome and Grayson and out-of-state heavyweights Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. John’s before taking on a region slate that included Hillgrove and McEachern.

This season, the Blue Devils will play Rome and Grayson again. They’ll swap Our Lady and St. John’s for St. Joseph Prep of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Class 6A champion and the alma mater of Georgia running back D’Andre Swift, and Edgewater of Orlando, a semifinalist in Florida’s Class 8A.

Morgan, entering his fourth season at Marietta, is establishing the same national profile here as he did in Virginia, where he led Oscar Smith High to two state titles. Interstate matchups and national rankings were a part of that dynasty.

This Marietta team probably has more D-I talent than any of his Oscar Smith teams, but Morgan wouldn’t put the Devils in their class yet.

“The difference is we haven’t won anything here yet,” Morgan said. “The teams in Virginia won state titles, and the rankings came with that. We still have a lot to prove on the field, not on paper. If we continue to improve like I’ve seen, though, I think we should have a good year.”

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