The Pepperell Dragons are gearing up for a 2020 season with majority of their team returning. Their goal? Bring a region title to Lindale for the first time since 2016 and journey beyond Game 12.

“That’s our expectation every year and it’s not going to be any different this year,” Pepperell head coach Rick Hurst said in a phone interview. “I would much rather be the hunted than the hunter. We’ve got a good nucleus coming back on both sides of the football. We’ve got to earn it, but I think our guys are definitely up to the challenge.”

Last season, the Dragons recorded a 9-3 record, making it to the second round of the state playoffs before falling to Thomasville to conclude 2019.

Pepperell only graduated 11 seniors last season, including its four captains in Josh Ross, Peyton Rhoades, Jake Chandler, and Ryan Hurst, Coach Hurst’s son.

“I think the one thing that impressed me the most about last year’s team was our leadership,” Hurst said. “They played their butts off all season long.”

This year, the roster’s listed seniors has doubled in size to 22. Hurst said rising seniors like Clay Crawford, Tray Robinson, Levi Lane and Will Helton will be stepping up into major roles. Helton will be taking over kickoff duties for Ryan Hurst.

“When we have good leaders, we have good football seasons,” Hurst said. “It’s something I talk about constantly with our seniors and our juniors and it’s something I’ve always hung my hat on as head coach is you’ve got to have that kind of leadership to be successful because they’re the ones that steer the ship. The other guys will fall in line if the guys that are captains and the older guys are pulling their weight.”

Another one of those rising senior leaders is quarterback Gage Moses. Hurst said Moses will be the starting signal caller in the fall. Moses, a three-year stater, threw for 1,389 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season.

“He’s got a great arm, but he tries to force some things and it gets him into trouble,” Hurst said. “I think what he’s got to learn a little bit more of is throwing the ball away or, when he gets out of the pocket and takes off, he’s so dangerous running the football. I think he saw that last year against Thomasville, he was able to hurt them ... on a couple of drives and put us in position to score. That’s the one thing we’re really trying to concentrate on with him is making him make better decisions, and if he does that, he’s a very good quarterback. He’s a kid that can hurt you with his legs and his arm.”

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hurst had only been able to work with his squad for a limited amount of time starting in June. On July 6, football teams were allowed to conduct 3-on-3s up to 7-on-7s, but no contact in pads was permitted. Only after Aug. 1 was full practice with pads allowed.

Hurst said he “couldn’t be happier” with how summer conditioning had gone as varsity sports slowly returned in Georgia.

“Anytime you’re off for two-and-a-half months, you expect the guys to come in out of shape ... that is not the case (in this instance),” Hurst said. “We had guys that worked ... I sent out weekly workout regiments to them and we had a lot of guys doing them and you could tell. There is some atrophy in terms of muscular loss ... because of the fact that we couldn’t get in the weight room, ... but our speed and our explosiveness is coming back very quickly. Guys are just itching to get back in there.”

Hurst said Pepperell continues to follow the guidelines set out by the GHSA, checking temperatures and screening personnel.

“We’ve been very fortunate, and hopefully, we don’t have to cross that bridge, but if we do, we just do,” Hurst said. “We started out really slow, but we increased the intensity and the work capacity ... in what we’re asking them to do and they’ve responded really well.”

Hurst said he is most excited about Pepperell’s offensive line, as the Dragons return four starters to the trenches, as well as starting running back D.J. Rogers.

“D.J. is an electric guy and he gets behind our big offensive line and he gets lost,” Hurst said. “I think our running game, early on, especially with what we’ve had to endure with no being able to throw the ball ... I think you’re going to find teams across the state that are going to come out and establish the run really quick.”

Post-realignment, the Dragons will compete in a slightly smaller Region 7-AA. Armuchee moves down, Rockmart moves up and Fannin County joins the mix.

The fire-breathing forces of Lindale are scheduled to open the 2020 campaign against the Rebel alliance of Haralson County on Friday, Sept. 4.

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