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Cherokee's Keith Adams Jr. runs the ball in Friday night's game against Sequoyah. (Photo: Anthony Stalcup)

Back-to-back losses to start the season have Kennesaw Mountain searching for answers, especially offensively.

On Friday, the Mustangs face a Cherokee team experiencing a very different start to the season -- undefeated through three games, scoring at a solid clip and playing lights-out defense.

Kennesaw Mountain (0-2) lost to Paulding County 48-13 to open season and 14-6 to Riverwood last week. Cherokee (3-0) beat North Forsyth, Sequoyah and North Hall, never allowing more than 14 points to be scored against it.

“We are in two completely different places this year. That’s for sure,” Kennesaw Mountain coach Caleb Carmean said.

Kennesaw Mountain is experiencing both the good and the bad of youth playing meaningful snaps. While the Mustangs have come out of their first two games and seen the promise of their young players, they have also been left without a win and struggled on offense, especially at protecting the ball.

“Our biggest thing right now is inexperience, not having a whole lot of returning guys on offense,” Carmean said. “We’ve turned the ball over way too much. Those two things kind of go hand in hand. Inexperience leads to turnovers a lot of times.”

While turnovers have hurt Kennesaw Mountain, Cherokee coach Josh Shaw sees the way his team has been able to limit turnovers offensively and force them on defense as the key to the Warriors' 3-0 start. They have forced 10 turnovers on defense while only giving the ball away once themselves, for a plus-9 margin that would make any coach happy.

Even with the disparity in the team’s records, Cherokee is not taking Kennesaw Mountain lightly.

“They’ve got quite a few athletes,” Shaw said. “I know they haven’t won a ball game yet, but (Carmean) does a great job. They’re going to be well-coached. They’re very young, graduated a lot of seniors just like we did. They’re good on the offensive line as well, so we’re going to have to play well defensively and try to keep their athletes hemmed in.”

Shaw said Kennesaw Mountain freshman running back T.J. Jenkins is a player Cherokee is focused on stopping.

Jenkins has rushed for a total of 201 yards in his first two high school games, good for seventh-best in Cobb County. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, but like the rest of his teammates, he has yet to find the end zone.

“We’ve got a really good group of freshmen, and T.J. is one of them,” Carmean said. “He’s a little undersized, but he’s got a lot of quickness, a lot of speed. He’s doing a really good job for us in the backfield. The game isn’t too fast for him, that’s for sure.”

Cherokee, which has faced Wing-T offenses to start the season, will face the added challenge of focusing on defending the spread offense for the first time in several weeks.

Offensively, Shaw would like to find more success in the running game, starting with his team’s physicality along the line.

Carmean and Kennesaw Mountain will lean on its defense. The staff is pleased with how the unit performed last week against Riverwood, and Carmean sees that as the team’s strength moving forward. He is hoping the offense can pick up on some of that unit’s momentum.

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