Despite debuting in 1996, Stephenson (Stone Mountain, Ga.) is one of the top football powers in Georgia and already has had 126 wins and 65 all-state members. Look for that winning trend to continue under head coach Ron Gartrell, who has been there since the beginning.
"I was just fortunate enough to land here and they needed a coach. So I started the franchise, this franchise," Gartrell said. "It's so gratifying when I look back. But at the same time everything has been moving so fast. I haven't had time to smell the roses."
Defensive coordinator Donald Sellers has also been with at Stephenson since the beginning. He and Gartrell began coaching together at Washington-Wilkes in 1983.
"We are like best friends and have been coaching together a very long time," Sellers said. "Our success is because of the leadership of Ron Gartrell. At the same time we know how to handle the program. It's basically the same coaches and the same staff. One of the keys to our consistency has been our stability."
Now if the Jaguars can only go out and win that elusive ring. That's the Stephenson goal each and every season but this year they have a great chance, even in the football gauntlet that is 5A in the state of Georgia.
"It has been one of the best runs ever in the state of Georgia," Gartrell said. "We have been in a lot of big games and we have won some and lost some over the years. And the state championship is one thing that has eluded us."
Stephenson has size, athleticism and depth across the board, but prides itself on defense. This year's team is anchored by the front four -- defensive ends Reggie Carter and Jarontay Jones and defensive tackles Carlos Hood and Jafar Mann. The Jaguars' linebacking corps has a chance to be exceptional with the likes of Raphael Kirby, Darreon Herring and Amos Harper. Jones, Mann and Hood all have double-digit scholarship offers at this time while Kirby and Herring have at least six from BCS programs.
"This is the last year and we have to end it with a boom," Mann said, who will be a three-year starter for the Jaguars. "We have to get that ring. This program has been too good not to win one. It's all about coach Gartrell. He is so good. He has a game plan for us both on and off the field, as a team. We have had a great offseason so far. The best part of this team is the competition. It makes us all better. It's a great issue because it makes you work harder to keep your spot."
As good as this senior class, the top overall prospect on the team could very well be Carter, who is a junior. He and his family moved from South Miami a few years ago and his father is very pleased with how his son has developed both on and off the field at Stephenson.
"He would have been attending Palmetto down in Miami but we had to move because of my job," Harvey Spruill said. "He has learned so much and we are all very happy with his progression. I mean his growth has been great. What I am really proud of is his thick skin. There is so much competition there that you have to compete every day and show those coaches."
While the Jaguars are stout defensively, they still will be a little young in the secondary. On the other side of the ball, they will be breaking in a brand new starting quarterback, but if highly touted running back Mike Davis can handle the load offensively behind a big, athletic offensive line, then the quarterback will only have to manage the game for Stephenson.
"The defense could just be super for us," Gartrell said. "Offensively, the crucial position is our new starter at quarterback. Justin Hallman is leading candidate. He has a good arm, is smart, and he's a work-a-holic. He has all the things you want. We just have to get him settled. With our running game and an excellent group of wide receivers we are hoping he won't have to win any games for us if you know what I mean."
Stephenson has three potential FBS receivers in Demarcus Sweat, Sean Blaylock and Lonatrio Collier. Up front, big-time offensive guard Stephen McKenzie (6-3, 285 pounds), offensive tackle Nicholas Gibbons (6-5, 280 pounds), center Jordan Dunham (6-2, 285 pounds) and tight end Josh Parris (6-3, 240 pounds) will be paving the way for Davis and protecting Hallman. Dunham is only a junior while the others already have scholarship offers.
"While we have accomplished so much in such a short time we will keep knocking on the door," said Gartrell. "We have done some great things but winning a state championship will be icing on the cake and we are not ready to put that cake away yet."
Bulldogs offer two Jaguars
A trio of Stephenson prospects -- defensive end Jarontay Jones, defensive tackle Jafar Mann and linebacker Raphael Kirby -- visited the University of Georgia on Wednesday and Kirby and Mann came home with offers.
"I was glad I got one," Kirby said. "Being a home-state kid and getting one from Georgia is exciting. I like the staff and their new facilities. They are putting players in the right environment. They [UGA] are in the mix."
Last week, Mann named a top five that included Florida, Auburn, Tennessee, Miami and LSU, all of which have offered him a scholarship. With the Dawgs now on board, was it enough to change his top five?
"No, not right now," Mann said. "I mean I am excited about this offer though. I like the staff, facilities and their defense. They gave me something to think about. They would now be in my top six."
New Gators back
Stephenson isn't the only school that is going to rely on Mike Davis to tote the rock in the near future. The 5-11, 195-pound running back committed to Florida after an unofficial visit to Gainesville this past weekend.
"I chose UF because I bonded well with all the coaches while I was there," said Davis via text message. "With the Gators switching to a pro-style offense I think that is the best fit for me. That was another reason why I picked them."
Davis also had scholarship offers from Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, FSU, Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina and others. Last season as a junior he rushed for over 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Hokies land Texas signal-caller
After his junior season, quarterback T.J. Millweard (Ft. Worth, Texas/All Saints Episcopal School) and his head coach, Aaron Beck, put together a wish list of 10 to 12 schools, compiled a highlight tape, wrote an introductory letter and mailed them off.
"Virginia Tech was near the top of that list and they called right back after getting the tape and stuff," said Beck. "You don't find that they recruit Texas all that much but it worked out here."
Millweard and his parents took off for Blacksburg this past Friday and spent the weekend at Virginia Tech, which was the first school to offer him.
"They loved it and thought it was a beautiful place," Beck said. "They spent a lot of time with the coaches and they made a strong impression on T.J. and his parents. The plan was to wait a few weeks before making a decision, but after they got back he committed. They didn't want to blow it and they are very excited."
The 6-4, 230-pound Millweard carries a 97 point grade average at his high school, which is actually a college prep school. Last season he threw for over 1,600 yards and rushed for over 600 yards and accounted for 15 touchdowns.
"He's not your typical quarterback that you see at Virginia Tech," Beck said. "T.J. is a pocket passer with great pocket presence. He stands tall back there and can throw it. He can also run but he's not Michael Vick or his brother. I mean at that size, [he runs a 4.7 40 time]. We run the zone read with him. Character wise is unbelievable. He's the kind of kid that any program in the country would be proud to have him as the face of their program."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.