When the Rome High football team stands across from their opponent Thursday night at Barron Stadium, it will be the past meeting the future, in a sense.
It was a year ago that the Rome Wolves, buoyed by a foundation of experienced veterans, were highly-touted and surrounded by lofty expectations as they welcomed the Blue Devils to Barron Stadium for the opening night of the Corky Kell Classic.
Now, it’s Marietta that enters the season with some preseason hype and a roster of senior playmakers who have garnered their fair share of high recruiting rankings and accolades. And it’s up to Rome to prove they are still a program full of players willing to do what it takes to win.
The Blue Devils enter the game as the top-ranked team in Class 7A according to the AJC, with quarterback Harrison Bailey and tight end Arik Gilbert both making the publication’s well-respected Super 11 list for their senior seasons.
Rome, meanwhile, has new starters in several skill positions who, while not entirely untested, will now be expected to make the first impression instead of come in after the likes of Jamious Griffin and Knox Kadum have helped build a sizable lead.
“It’s a tough early game, but it’s non-region, so it’s just throw it out there and do the best that you can,” Rome head coach John Reid said about the contest. “I think last year both of us were going for it on fourth down. It has no playoff implications. It’s just to see how much we’ve got in us. I’m sure it’s going to be a big heavyweight prize fight, hopefully.”
Last year’s 51-41 Rome win was a grueling ordeal for both teams as they fought for three and a half hours into the early hours of Friday morning.
Marietta lost three of their five fumbles in last year’s matchup, and Bailey’s lone interception led to a Rome touchdown.
“Last year we turned the ball over too much and I don’t think we played sound on defense,” Marietta head coach Richard Morgan said. “Those are areas we’re really focused on this year; being able to protect the ball and being more sound on defense.”
Marietta receiver Ramel Keyton had 191 yards and four touchdowns on 14 catches in last year’s game. He is now at Tennessee. Morgan said they will count on consistency on the offense to try and overcome Rome’s powerful defensive front.
“Offensively, we’ve got most everybody back with the exception of Ramel. So offensively there’s some continuity and the kids are comfortable with the system,” Morgan said. “But we’ve got to do a better job of special teams, holding onto the football and defensive alignment.”
Rome’s offensive and defensive lines will be counted on to provide leverage against Marietta’s veteran skill set, with Army commit Aidan Gaines at center and fellow offensive lineman Quantavious Leslie, who has several Division I offers.
Rayquan Jones, who is committed to Coastal Carolina, anchors a defensive line that also includes Bryant Wilkinson and Jorden Neal.
“The trenches is really where it’s going to be for us,” Jones said. “We’ve got to be tough on the D-line and O-line, and then I think we’ll have a pretty good shot.”
Junior quarterback Caleb Ellard is expected to start for the Wolves as he makes his Rome debut. Senior running back Trey Lawrence is set to be the go-to ball carrier after studying behind former Rome players like Griffin and Jalynn Sykes in his high school career.