Hawthorne prepares for another title run

Hawthorne football Brian James (left) and Jailen Ruth
Hawthorne's Brian James (left) led the Hornets with 1,171 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in 2021 and Jailen Ruth spearheaded the defense with 102 tackles and 17 sacks. (Photo of James by C.J. Gish; of Ruth by Suzette Cook)

Although the Hawthorne football team lost to Madison County, 13-12, in the Class 1A state title game last December, it was the second straight year that the Hornets (10-1) played in the state championship game.

“Unbelievable,” Hawthorne coach Cornelius Ingram said of last year’s run. “Going into last offseason there was a lot of pressure on these kids. We can only say so much during the day, on the practice field, but these kids still have to go to the grocery store, the barber shop, the mall. I can’t even imagine what was said to them.”

Despite the shortcoming, it seems the pressure has been eliminated.

Hawthorne football coach Cornelius Ingram
Photo by Megan Winslow Cornelius Ingram

“It’s a new season,” said Ingram, who normally does offseason workouts with his girls basketball team but this past summer he worked out in the weight room with the football team instead. “I think these guys are energized to make another state playoff run.”

Hawthorne dominated the Mainstreet Daily News All Area teams last year on both offense and defense.

The team is loaded with Division-I talent on both sides of the ball.

“These are my brothers,” said senior offensive tackle Mozell Williams, who is committed to Rutgers University. “This was something we had dreamed of to be honest. It’s a blessing come true.”

Last year’s offense averaged 33.9 points per game, while the defense allowed seven points or less six times. That makes things challenging during the week.

“It’s very fun because a lot of us play different positions so we have to battle it out with each other in practice every single day,” said senior Jailen Ruth, who is committed to Washington State. “It’s very competitive but it makes everybody better and we have fun while we’re practicing against each other.”

Hawthorne football Ga'mon Randall
Photo by Megan Winslow Ga’mon Randall

Despite losing quarterback Tyler Jefferson to Columbia (Lake City), plus the graduation of Chaz’ Mackey, who combined to throw for over 1,000 yards and rush for over 700 yards, the Hornets will be in good hands with Ingram’s son, C.J., at QB.

“He has a chance to be special,” Ingram said of his rising sophomore. “When you have a young quarterback, everything around him needs to be set up. Great defense, we’ll have that, great running game, we’ll definitely have that, him being able to throw it, run it, we’re excited about C.J. His teammates are as well.”

Ingram noted CJ had a great summer, lost 12 pounds since basketball season, competed at a NIKE camp, and was great in 7-on-7 drills.

“He’s tall, lengthy, athletic,” Williams added. “He can throw. He’s good in space. He’ll be good for our offense.”

The Hornets will have “three or four guys who can get 100 yards on any night in the backfield” according to Ingram.

The offensive backfield will be led by Brian James, who rushed for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior, along with Demetrius Brown, who had a great spring game with over 150 yards rushing.

Hawthorne football Darian Owens
Photo by Megan Winslow Darian Owens

They’ve also added a couple of transfers who will be in the backfield.

“We’re going to be really good,” Ingram said with a smile.

The passing game includes senior Ga’mon Randall, the leading returning receiver with 14 catches, and junior Matthew McKinley (6 foot, 175 pounds), a bigger receiver with great speed. They will also have senior Terrell James, who missed the entire year last year with an ACL injury.

“There’s a lot of good pieces falling in place,” Ingram said. “We’ll be pretty solid up front with our offensive and defensive line. Our defense will be one of the fastest in the state and probably one of the best in the state as well for all classes.”

Senior Darian Owens (6-3, 280) will help anchor the offensive line.

“I feel like if we all buy in it’s all going to play out,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ingram said the defense will be pretty close to being as good as last year’s defense that allowed less than 10 points per game (9.18).

“The expectations are the same,” Ingram said. “If we just take care of our business, one game at a time, the end of the season will set up itself.”

Hawthorne football Mozell Williams
Photo by Megan Winslow Mozell Williams

If defense wins championships, this could be a special year.

Ruth (6-5, 190), who led the team with 102 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, and 17 sacks, feels like the defense can be even better this year.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are going to fly around and a lot of good leaders on the defense,” said Ruth, who finished third in the voting for the Class 1A Player of the Year. “We have young guys that have stepped up a lot. Their bodies have changed and I really feel like we’re going to do good things on defense.”

Defensive tackle Stanley Cooks, who is committed to Georgia State University, is back for his senior season after recording eight sacks and 18 tackles for a loss. He likes what he sees on defense.

“Because we’re getting all of the young players to buy into what we want them to do,” said Cooks, who will play offensive line if the teams need him to. “I feel like once we all come together we’ll be state champions at the end of the season.”

Cooks said the way the team approached the offseason gives him that optimism.

“We came in with a different approach,” he said. “All of the young players, they help us get on the right page also. The way we attacked the weight room this year is better than the way we attacked it the last two years.”

Hawthorne football Stanley Cooks
Photo by Megan Winslow Stanley Cooks

The play of the defense can be attributed to defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins.

“He knows what he is talking about,” Cooks said. “He studies hard. He watches a lot of film. He puts players in the right position to make the best play that they can possibly make. He comes out with a full scout sheet so we’ll know where to be at.”

Once again, it’s a loaded schedule with most games against bigger competition than Hawthorne, which will compete in the new rural division (Class 1R-Region 4).

One of the more anticipated games on the schedule is Oct. 21 at home against North Marion (Citra), which made the Class 5A playoffs last season. The Hornets lost to the Colts in 7-on-7 drills last summer which “got very heated,” according to Ruth, so they were looking forward to the rematch during the regular season in 2021.

“We weren’t able to play them last year (due to weather) and that’s a game everybody was looking forward to,” Cooks noted. “Now with us being able to play them this year, I feel like it’s going to be a big crowd once we play them.”

The Hornets will also play Gibbs (St. Pete), another 5A playoff opponent which is coached by former Gator wide receiver Louis Murphy, who was teammates with Ingram at UF.

Hawthorne football Jailen Ruth
Photo by Megan Winslow Jailen Ruth

“We have a solid schedule,” Ingram said. “We try to schedule up to have us prepared for the playoffs. That’s the formula and it’s been working so far so we’re going to continue to do it.”

The Hornets were undefeated following a win against Chipley in the state semifinals, so the loss to the Cowboys in last year’s final was their only blemish.

“We have to do what we did but come back even harder this year,” Williams said. “We’re hungry. We actually want to win it this time.”

The talent is definitely there.

“It’s really just going to take us being more ‘dogish than we were last year,” Ruth said. “We had a lot of dogs on the team but when we needed some of them to pull through we just couldn’t. We just need to be able to get mentally stronger than other teams.”

Hawthorne also needs to “take care of the little things” to finish the job, according to Ingram.

“We’re right there,” he said. “If we do that we set ourselves up. If we continue to just really believe and work we’ll get what we deserve.”

The Hornets will travel to Ed White (Jacksonville) at 6:30 p.m. this Friday for the Kickoff Classic. They open up the regular season at Middleburg on Friday, Aug. 26.

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