Once upon a time, Howard head coach Barney Hester coached receivers under Erk Russell at Georgia Southern.
For years after that, Hester’s teams at Tattnall Square -- and his first couple of teams at Howard -- were famous for avoiding the pass. Pounding the running game pushed Hester’s career victory total well above the 300-win mark.
This year, Hester has gone to the air again, coaching a Howard team that is passing the ball a lot. And the Huskies have played their way into the discussion for a playoff spot from GHSA Region 2-AAAA.
“He has a blueprint, has a plan that has worked his whole career,” Mary Persons head coach Brian Nelson said. “The kids are buying in; they’re getting bigger, more athletic, running better, doing more in the weight room. Their quarterback (Courvoisier King) is a really good player, and they have some on defense who are really good players. It’s kind of a different make-up for them. They have confidence.”
What is arguably Howard’s biggest test of the regular season comes Friday at the Ed DeFore Sports Complex, when the Huskies host neighborhood rival Mary Persons. And while Mary Persons has owned the series, winning all five meetings by comfortable margins, there’s a sense that this meeting might just be a little different.
“It’s a big deal,” Hester said. “Mary Persons is a great program, one that we respect a lot and one that we would like to build our program like. It’s time for us to grow up a little bit and take that next step and play these guys and find out where we’re headed.”
Even a close game would be a break with what has happened in the series. Mary Persons has outscored Howard 204-23, holding the Huskies to a total of nine points in the past four meetings.
But Howard (5-1, 1-1 Region 2-AAAA) already has secured the best record in its program’s history, with the Huskies giving defending region champion West Laurens all it could handle before falling 21-14 on Sept. 25 for the team’s lone loss.
It’s all a part of a region that is showing off its parity. Five of the seven teams are at .500 or better, and a sixth team (Veterans) is 1-0 in region play despite a 2-3 overall record.
“Our region has a bunch of good teams, good players and good coaches,” Nelson said. “We don’t expect much of a difference from Howard. Barney Hester’s record speaks for itself, and their team is playing better than any Howard team before. They will be a big challenge for us.”
Mary Persons (5-0, 1-0) is off to a quick start with a fairly young team. A pair of close victories, including a double-overtime win over a Jackson squad that is otherwise unbeaten, has given the Bulldogs some experience in clutch situations. But the Mary Persons schedule is back-loaded with teams with winning records -- either overall or in region play -- and tests will be coming every week.
The Bulldogs are getting balance offensively, with running backs Zach Harvey (515 yards, six touchdowns) and Jaquavious Sims (397 yards, three touchdowns) leading the ground game and quarterback Jake Johnston throwing for 599 yards and five scores with a 58 percent completion rate.
They take on a Howard offense powered by King, who surpassed the 1,000-yard passing mark last week in a win over Perry.
“What we’ve done up to this point with our record looks good, but -- not to take away from our opponents -- that doesn’t really mean anything,” Nelson said. “We have our five toughest teams left, and it can go any way. That speaks to the parity and the quality of our region.”