Coach Chip Walker guided the Sandy Creek Fighting Patriots to a 7-5 record last season and into the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. The school that produced the likes of Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech, Detroit Lions) and Kedric Golston (UGA, Washington Redskins) has another talented roster filled with explosive playmakers on offense, led by QB Rio Johnson and WR Braxton Lane and solid defenders like Matt Solomon and Brandon Putnam. Fifteen starters return overall for Coach Walker's team.
Sandy Creek Patriots
Sandy Creek will be making the move back up into Class AAAA after two seasons in Class AAA. The Patriots will be joined in Region 5-AAAA Subdivision-A by Fayette County and Whitewater, two emerging programs who make the trek over from Region 2.
Top Returning Offensive Starters
QB Rio Johnson
WR Braxton Lane
WR Patrick Alexander
RB Rajion Neal
OL Zach Vale
In all, nine players return on offense. The key to the offense is 6'3, 185-pound quarterback Rio Johnson, who passed for 1800 yards last year and is considered one of the better quarterback prospects in the state. "He gives us the opportunity to do a lot of different things offensively," said Coach Walker. "He can run, he can throw and he has good command of our offense. This will be his second year starting and he played a lot as a sophomore so he's going to be a key piece back there."
Johnson won't have a shortage of weapons as Braxton Lane and company provides him a formidable core of receivers to throw to. Lane, too, is considered one of the state's best at his position. The 5'11 Lane, who has been timed as low as 4.3 in the forty-yard dash, combines with Jarrett Davis, Patrick Alexander, Devin Hughes, and promising sophomore Alex Chizzle to form perhaps the best wideout combo in the region.
The two new offensive starters will be on the offensive line where Zach Vale, John Hollman and Charlie Zimco return.
Running back Rajion Neal will be the full-time starter this year after sharing carries last year.
Top Returning Defensive Starters
LB Matt Solomon
LB Michael Spalding
DE Brandon Putnam
DT James Hervey
S Russell Bonner
S Isaiah Johnson
Coach Walker calls Solomon the best football player on the team. Solomon was in on 119 tackles as a junior and is being recruited to play on the next level. The 5'11, 195-pound Solomon has started the past two years and is a linebacker that plays sideline-to-sideline and is the key to the defense.
Putnam, a 6'3, 235 pound defensive end, has already received a handful of Division-I offers, and leads a talented defensive line group.
Bonner, a three-year starter, and Isaiah Johnson anchor the secondary.
RB Rajion Neal
LB Michael Spalding
CB Bruce Dukes
While Sandy Creek has a dangerous receiving corps, Coach Walker would still like to see more consistency from the guys who will line up opposite Braxton Lane.
"Offensively, I think the other wideouts besides Braxton probably need to be a little bit more consistent," Walker said. "They all played last year but they all need to kind of step up a little bit."
Help could come from 6'2 sophomore Alex Chizzle. "He has a chance to really contribute. He could really give us another weapon."
Running back Rajion Neal will be asked to be the team's workhouse this year and his coach is counting on him to step up to the plate.
"I think our tailback has to make sure he's an every down back, "Walker said of Neal. "He shared time with a senior last year and ended up beating him out and starting but when that work load's all yours, you got to be able to tote that thing 20 to 25 times and that'll be key."
With five starters to replace defensively, some guys will be counted on to step up and linebacker Michael Spalding is one of those guys.
"Michael Spalding, the starting sam [line]backer needs to have a big year," stated Coach Walker. "He'll be a key for us defensively having as good a defense as we can have.
Coach Walker is also looking for a cornerback to step up opposite senior Julian Holmes and young Bruce Davis has emerged to be that guy.
"He's one of the top five athletes on our team and he's going to be a sophomore," Walker said. "He looks like right now he's in the lead for that other [cornerback spot]. We need to make sure we get that taken care of."
Experience, speed, special teams
The Patriots are blessed with an abundance of players with starting experience, many of whom have multiple years of starting experience under their belts, especially at the key skill positions on offense.
Johnson and Lane could be as good as any pass-catching combination in the state and will be hard to stopped. Lane is the team's fastest player but there is speed to go around on both sides of the ball.
"About two years ago we made a commitment that we wanted to get as much speed on the field as we could defensively," stated Coach Walker, "and we made some moves that really helped us last year and we've kind of continued with that trend."
Speed is often a good substitute for size and is exactly what Coach Walker is relying on from his defense.
"Our back seven can all run pretty good. We may not be as big as some people back there but they can all run really good and that's something I feel like we've got to have — speed on defense — to be able to compete with what people are doing offensively now."
Walker thinks the speed on offense could actually be better."Offensively, we feel like we have as good as that (speed) as we've had since the days of Calvin Johnson and those guys."
Zach Lopez is back to handle the team's kicking duties and will once gain compete with Russell Bonner for the punting job. Lane will again be the return guy and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
It's easy to get excited about 15 starters coming back from a playoff team, especially when three of them are Johnson, Lane, and Solomon, but Coach Walker is still uneasy about his team's overall depth.
"Depth overall is going to be a concern," he said. "There's no doubt about that. Our first 22 to 25 players are pretty good. We've got to find some guys to step up after that."
It'll be interesting to see how Sandy Creeks gets out of the gate to start the season with their first two games against East Coweta and Shaw, two playoff teams from last year. The pieces are definitely there for Coach Walker's team to make some noise in their new region and he thinks they should be able to do so.
"I think that we should be in competition as one of the playoff teams…I think we have the ability to be competitive on our side [of Region 5-AAAA] and compete for a playoff spot."