The yearly endeavor to select the top football players in the county is always a tough one.
The choice for the year’s top offensive player, however, was a no-brainer.
Ridgeland senior Darrell Bridges took the ball, literally, and raced to arguably the best season by any running back in Walker County history.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder finished as the third-leading rusher in the entire state with 2,430 yards on 279 bruising carries, averaging nearly nine yards per carry, while obliterating the school-record with 39 rushing touchdowns. The quarterback-turned-fullback also showed that he still has an arm, completing 11-of-17 passes for 382 yards and five TD’s against zero interceptions.
Those numbers were good enough to land Bridges a Region 7-AAAA first team nod and Region Co-Offensive Player of the Year honors with Cedartown fullback Nick Chubb.
In addition, Bridges was named to the All-State first team by the Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as part of one of the state’s most devastating ground games.
The 2012 Ridgeland Panthers ran for 5,431 yards as a team (an average of 339 yards per game), while scoring 73 total rushing TD’s.
“Every time I got the ball, I just tried to be determined not to go down,” Bridges explained of his hard-charging style. “It was nice to be running behind all those big boys up front, and the beside those other great running backs I shared carries with this season. I just tried to do what I could when I got the ball.”
Ridgeland won a school-record 13 games this past fall, capturing their fourth region title in the last five years and going on to make the program’s first-ever state championship game appearance in the Georgia Dome.
“We always believed we could have a year like this one,” Bridges continued. “It was one of goals at the start of the year. The hardest part, though, was achieving it, but because we set the bar so high for ourselves, it made it that much sweeter to achieve those goals.”
Bridges did most of his damage in the playoffs. Including the 7-AAAA title game victory over River Ridge, the senior ran 134 times for 1,085 yards and 17 TD’s in six post-season games, while going 7-of-8 in the air for 223 yards and three more scores.
“Like I’ve always told our kids, big-time players step up and perform in big moments, and that’s exactly what Darrell did for us,” Ridgeland head coach Mark Mariakis said. “He really stepped up and just carried us at times this season. When you stop to think about playing 15 games, running mostly between the tackles, and the pounding he took every week, it just makes the numbers he put up even more amazing.”
Mariakis said Bridges’ humble nature is what makes him even more of a special talent.
“Even with all the national attention some our of kids were getting, Darrell, like the rest of the team, still didn’t care who got the credit. There was no selfishness on the team. He works hard in the classroom and he’s a leader, on and off the field. You always knew that Darrell was coming out every day to work and coming out every night to win.”
Bridges, who began his prep career at Red Bank (Tenn.), added that his two football seasons at Ridgeland would be fondly remembered.
“I’m good friends with the Bowman family, and they told me what a great program I was coming into and how it was more of a community-based family thing than just a football team,” he said. “I’m taking a lot of great memories away. I think once our banquet gets here (this Thursday), and we are all together for the last time as a team, maybe that’s when this season will finally sink in and it will mean more than what it has meant already.
“It’s going to be hard going off to college and playing with new guys, but I’ll always remember this experience for the rest of my life.”
THE REST OF THE WALKER COUNTY FOOTBALL DREAM TEAM OFFENSE
QB - Trevor Long (Ridgeland) The senior was a key cog in the Panthers' powerful wing-T attack, passing for 738 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for one of his own.
RB - Noah Cooper (Ridgeland) The hard-running junior was part of Ridgeland's four-headed backfield monster, rushing for 801 yards and eight touchdowns for the region champs.
RB - Cody Dallas (LaFayette) The senior overcame last year's injury to run for 814 yards and seven touchdowns on 176 carries, while racking up 124 yards in receiving.
RB - Adam Vandiver (Gordon Lee) The gritty senior missed time due to a knee injury, but came back to finish with 640 rushing yards and seven total TD's to help the Trojans reach the playoffs.
WR - Vonn Bell (Ridgeland) The Region 7-AAAA Player of the Year and All-State first teamer had 735 yards receiving and nine scores while rushing for 1,056 yards and 13 TD's.
WR - Hunter Clark (LaFayette) It was a breakout season for the junior, who caught 12 passes for 288 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 24 yards per reception for the Ramblers.
OL - Dustin Davis (Ridgeland) A fixture on the line for the past three seasons, the All-Region senior helped pave the way for a rushing attack that piled up nearly 340 yards a game on the ground.
OL - Dallas Goodlet (Gordon Lee) The sophomore 6-A North first teamer opened holes for the Trojans' running game, and also stood out at linebacker with 70 tackles and five sacks.
OL - Gannon Hampton (Ridgeland) The physical senior made his presence felt, earning first team All-State honors from the Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
OL - Grady Matthews (Ridgeland) Another anchor of the Panthers' bulldozing offensive line, the All-Region pick helped his team to 73 TD's and over 5,400 yards on the ground.
OL - Stanley Stong (Gordon Lee) The senior made the most of his final season with the Navy-and-White, earning second team honors from the 6-A North head coaches.
OL - Barron Taylor (LaFayette) The senior was the Ramblers' top lineman in 2012, grading out at 92 percent with 12 pancake blocks, while having a part in 124 tackles on defense.
ATH - Zack Cobb (Gordon Lee) The junior did a little of everything for the Trojans, rushing for 852 yards on 129 carries, racking up 438 in return yards, and totaling 10 touchdowns.
K - Evan Courtney (Ridgeland) The dependable senior was 77-of-81 on extra point attempts, 3-of-4 in field goal attempts with a long of 45 yards, and punted for a 34.5 average.