Calhoun's Zack Fuller

Calhoun’s Zack Fuller (center) looks for running room during last Thursday’s preseason scrimmage against Northwest Whitfield. (Frank Crowe, For the Calhoun Times)

The Calhoun Yellow Jackets have been a part of some pretty big games over the last several years, but most of the time they have come later in the season. This year, however, they are starting out on the big stage.

Coming off the Class AAA state championship in 2017, the Jackets will open the 2018 campaign on Thursday afternoon as they play for the first time ever in the Corky Kell Classic at 5:30 p.m. when they take on Ridgeland at Barron Stadium in Rome. The game is part of the three-day, three-site showcase that features some of the top teams in Georgia and will also utilize Georgia State Stadium on Friday and Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.

Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said his team is excited to be a part of the Corky Kell Classic and starting the season with such a big test.

“Being able to play in the (Corky Kell Classic) is a big deal,” said Lamb, who is starting his 20th season as head coach of the Jackets. “It’s an honor to play in it, and our kids and our community are excited to be a part of it. It will be something different for the kids to experience, and we look forward to being a part of a great game and atmosphere to start the season.”

The Jackets are coming off their preseason scrimmage last Thursday when they defeated Northwest Whitfield 48-7 at Phil Reeve Stadium. Calhoun’s starters and backups played well in the first half to earn a 21-7 lead at the break, and the underclassmen took over in the second half and excelled, scoring four fourth-quarter touchdowns to put an exclamation point on the win. Lamb said overall he was pleased with the effort, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

“I thing we were ahead of the game defensively,” said Lamb. “Offensively, we’ve got some work to do, but overall the effort was good. I told the kids before the scrimmage that we were probably going to make some mistakes, but the biggest thing we were looking at was effort and we got that.”

Calhoun senior quarterback Gavin Gray had a touchdown pass to Luke Moseley on a 20-yard connection in the second quarter and finished with 91 yards through the air on 7-of-13 attempts in all. The big defensive play came in the first quarter as linebacker Collin Baggett intercepted a Bruins’ pass and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown to put his team up early.

The Jackets will need to make plays on both sides of the ball this week as they face a Ridgeland team that has plenty of playmakers itself. The Panthers have been to the playoffs 10 of the last 12 seasons and went 11-1 last year en route to a Region 6-AAAA title and a second-round state playoff appearance. It will be the first game under new head coach Courtney Braswell, who took over for Wesley Tankersley this past spring after Tankersley left to take the Stephens County head job.

Lamb said his team is preparing for a very explosive Ridgeland team on Thursday.

“They are well-coached and have a lot of great athletes,” said Lamb. “They have a lot of speed on both sides of the ball. It’s definitely going to be a tough test for us so we have to prepare well and have a good gameplan going into it. It’s also a little concerning playing at 5:30 in the afternoon because it’s going to be hot and going to test both teams’ conditioning.”

Ridgeland has their quarterback from last season returning in senior signal-caller Tanner Hill, who threw for 671 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017. They will also have their top receiver back again in Stephon Walker who had 531 yards receiving and eight touchdowns as a junior. They will be breaking in two new running backs, however, as their two leading rushers from last season graduated this past spring.

The two teams are somewhat familiar with each other having played four times since 2008 with the Jackets winning all four of those meetings. Ridgeland’s only victory over Calhoun came back in 1989.

Lamb said the Panthers’ speed is high on the list of priorities his team has to account for, and he also believes his team’s depth and conditioning will be key.

“We’ve got to contain their speed, no doubt about that,” said Lamb. “And you always have to win the turnover battle as well. I think with the game being played earlier in the afternoon, I think the team with the most depth will have an advantage because it’s going to be so hot. The team that’s in the best shape and has the most depth will have a good shot at winning this one.”