MCDONOUGH, Ga. — When Ola football coach Jared Zito showed up back in 2014 to take over a largely moribund program, he knew he’d have his work cut out for him.
After all, he was taking the reins of a program that had never seen a winning season, let alone the playoffs. Future Division I/Power Five football talent was rarely spoken of. But much has changed as Zito heads to game four of his sixth season Friday night when No. 3 Dutchtown comes to town in a matchup of undefeated Henry County foes.
Zito chatted with Georgia Sportswriters Association director, Gabriel Stovall about the program build, the talent increase and the secret behind the Mustangs’ first 3-0 start in program history, as well as what he expects to see against Dutchtown.
Gabriel Stovall: Coach, since I last covered your team, a lot has changed. A lot of good has happened. But in this first 3-0 start in program history, what do you see as the major difference between this squad and your other five teams you’ve coached here?
Jared Zito: “First thing that jumps out to me, just our experience. We played a lot of kids last year, some due to graduation, some injury, some of it because we had a smaller senior class last year. And because of that, a lot of these kids played and we didn’t have as much success. So they were learning as they took their lumps. But the second thing is — and this is probably a little different than any group I’ve had thus far — they are very competitive, but really believe in each other. They just have a different aura about them, and, of course, winning games only grows that aura. It validates what they think about themselves. I think those are the two non-football difference, you know, besides better o-line, and players and all that stuff. Those two characteristics are biggest pieces.
But from a football standpoint, I think we have a little more depth in some spots than in years past. We have a really good defense, better than last year, and that helps in so many ways. We are a little more balanced than we’ve been. We’re able to throw the football a little bit more, and the pass game helps the run game. It makes a difference when you have the players who can do it. We’re just really solid everywhere. We don’t have a Chris Rodriguez (Kentucky) or an Austin Smith (Georgia Tech) — those superstar guys with big names.
We’ve got a tackle with a bunch of offers in Chandler Durham. He’s got about 20 good offers, the biggest one is Nebraska. He goes up there for a visit in, I think, two weeks, and, you know, he hasn’t made a commitment or said who his top schools are or anything, but he talks about Nebraska a lot. But the tackles don’t always get as much attention as a running back or a d-end. But we’ve just got a lot of good, solid high school football players.”
STOVALL: Coach, as far as offense goes, it looks like it starts with senior quarterback Hunter Kautz. Over 400 yards passing, 300 yards rushing. He’s completing about 64 percent of his passes or so. True dual threat guy. What have you seen from him, in terms of growth, that’s helped him just jump out of the blocks fast this season?
ZITO: “Number one, when you’re talking about Hunter Kautz, two words readily come to mind: Tough and very competitive. He just loves to win. The difference for him this year from last year is that he’s just making really good decisions. He’s not making some of the bad plays a quarterback can make that can just ruin the night for you. He wants to win every down.
“And, you know, Brett Favre was famous for this and Hunter kinda can be the same way, but he’ll do some things that’s maybe not how we coached it, but, hey, it scored. And then the next time he does it, it’s a pick six, a fumble or a loss of 25. So you kind of live and die with that kind of play. But this year, he’s thrown balls away and made really good decisions.
“He’s been very accurate with balls, his decisions in RPO situations have been solid and he’s thrown some absolutely strikes. Two years in, he’s in full command of the offense and he’s playing with confidence.”
STOVALL: Beyond Hunter, who are some others guys who’ve really stepped up and raised some eyebrows?
ZITO: “On the offensive side, we’ve got some skill guys like Kas Stephens. He’s our wide receiver this year. He’s a senior and has really, really done a great job with 1-on-1 matchups. Typically we haven’t had that kind of guy here over the years, and he’s becoming that guy. Also Dillon Scott is one of those faster receiver too. He’s made some plays. Both of those guys have helped us in the throw game.
“Karl Kennedy (292 rushing yards, 5.6 yards per carry) is our returning starter at running back, but we’ve got two sophomores who are gonna be really good players. (Naziq) Dahniya (134 rushing yards, 9.1 ypc) who gives us some depth there. He actually had some big carries against Eastside. Micah Bell (128 rushing yards, 9.1 ypc) is also a sophomore.
“Defensively, really there’s three big names: LB Baylen Sanders. He’s a senior leading everybody in tackles. He’s a tackling machine and is playing good football. Devin Lee is a junior, and he’s gonna be a major prospect. He’s playing some nose and end in our 3-man front, and he’s really playing at a high level. And there’s Legend Doggett who’s kind of the lockdown corner for us.”
STOVALL: Coach, whether it’s Rodriguez or Austin Smith or the guys emerging that you have now, this idea of Ola having this kind of next-level, Power Five, Division I talent on a consistent basis wasn’t really here until you showed up. What do you think you guys have maybe done differently to produce that kind of talent?
ZITO: “I don’t know if it’s anything I’ve done or haven’t done. But I do think a couple of things are at work. This day and age in high school football, the transfer game is real, whether people like it or not. And when parents are looking to move, they’re seeing: No. 1, is the school successful academically? Is it a safe environment? And if the kid is an athlete, they’re gonna look at that athletic program. And they’re going to ask, A. Are they winning? But also B. What are they doing to develop their players and their talent, and what opportunities are they getting there to play the game in college after they’re done playing in high school?
“And I think here at Ola, you know, our school speaks for itself with the kind of climate and culture we have in the building. I think when you have that, it draws you in. You know, hopefully as a football program, we’re going to be competitive. I mean, we’re gonna be outmanned in some cases some nights. That’s just how it goes. But are they prepared? Are they competitive? Are they developing year round? Are they helping them to play at the next level if they’re good enough. If you’re doing those kinds of things, hopefully people will get the word out, and word of mouth is still the best advertiser.”
STOVALL: Wrapping up with you, Coach, and shifting to Friday night with No. 3 Dutchtown. Huge game for both programs, and really for Henry County, but also a major opportunity for Ola to do something that really hasn’t happened around here much — if at all — in beating a top 3 squad. How big is this matchup for your guys, and how are you keeping them grounded for it?
ZITO: “Well, you know Dutchtown, they are what they are. They’re a good football team. They’re well-coached and until somebody beats them, they deserve everything that comes their way. Coach (Clifford) Fedd and coach Rogers do a really good job. No question about that. But the thing with us is it doesn’t matter if we come into this game 3-0 or 0-3. That record doesn’t mean anything regarding the playoffs.
“Our ultimate goal is still the playoffs, and we work from there with getting region wins. We don’t get anymore points for beating Dutchtown than we would anyone else in the region. But the main thing is they’re a region opponent and it would be a region win. And we said this with Whitewater: We’re gonna scheme for other teams, but we gotta continue to worry about us.
“Are we better this Friday than last Friday? Whether that’s individually where we fix those things this Friday, or as a team we just say, ‘Let’s do those things better.’ Will we win or not? Well, we still gotta make plays. You want to win every game you play or coach. And I think if we keep that mentality, keep doing do what we’re doing, we’ll win the games I think we’re supposed to win.”