Posted: Monday, August 13th 2012 at 9:36am
Football 2012: Despite tougher schedule, Gainesville's expectations still high
By Morgan Lee Editor
GAINESVILLE -- There were times over the past four seasons when Gainesville football entered a contest knowing it had a distinct advantage over its opponent.
Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller says that starting this season those days are gone.
That’s because Gainesville has jumped two classifications, moving from Region 8-AAA to 8-AAAAA, where it will face plenty of talented new foes and one talented old rival in Flowery Branch.
“There will be great athletes all over the field every Friday,” Miller said of 8-AAAAA, which includes programs such as Clarke Central, Heritage (Conyers) and Apalachee. “It will be better competition week-in, week-out. The question is will we rise to the challenge?”
With standouts such as Deshaun Watson and Fred Payne filling out the roster, the Red Elephants feel the answer is yes.
“Our kids have never backed down from a challenge,” Miller said. “And they’re excited about taking on this new schedule.”
Certainly Gainesville fans will be excited about yet another season with Watson at the helm of the Red Elephants’ spread offense -- which averaged 40.6 points per game. The dual threat signal caller lit up opposing defenses in 2011, passing for 3,251 yards (with a 60.7 percent completion rate), 41 TDs and 6 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,073 yards and 16 scores in helping Gainesville to go 12-2 and reach the Class AAA semifinals. And with another offseason under his belt, Miller feels the junior could be even better in 2012.
“He’s gained 10 pounds, he’s a year smarter, and he just knows the offense so well now,” Miller said. “He dissects defenses. And he handles everything with such grace. He’s a true team player... he’s just a special kid.”
Major college football programs across the nation agree, throwing scholarship offers at the 6-foot-4 Watson that resemble his own numerous touchdown strikes -- though he is currently committed to Clemson.
Watson will have plenty of talented and varied targets to throw to this season, including returning starters Keyontra Harrison (30-plus catches, 700-plus yards in 2011) and Lahius Leverette, as well as Caleb Hayman who took over a starting role in the postseason and exploded with key touchdown catches.
“That was big what he did in the playoffs last year,” Miller said of the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Hayman. “This year we feel like we’ve got a great group of kids that we can run in and out and not miss much of a beat.”
Gainesville also believes it has a stable of running backs that can help take some of the rushing load off Watson, including juniors Jay Gaudlock (returning from a broken leg suffered early last season), RayRay Harrison and sophomore Michael Byrd -- each of whom played key roles at different points last season.
“We were in this same position last year and the offensive line came around great,” Miller said. “We hope that’s the case again this year.”
Defensively, Gainesville must replace a number of standouts but also returns five starters to a unit that allowed 17 points per game in 2011.
Payne, who racked up over 110 tackles last season, is the unit’s leader, acting as a sort of defensive quarterback from his safety position. He heads up a secondary that is relatively inexperienced but talented and includes senior cornerback TK Mize and sophomore Lewis Cousins, who is already beginning to turn heads.
The linebacker corps returns leading tackler Devon Stringer and outside linebacker Michael Pittman, while Jadarius Sosebee, Alex Muckle, Brenquese Dukes and Brenquez Dukes are also battling for playing time in a defense that utilizes speed to attack and confuse opposing offenses -- blitzing from one spot on one down and coming from another spot on the next.
Seniors Connor Calvert and Damian Grayson will help anchor the defensive line.
“Our defense is a little untested, but there’s plenty of talent,” Miller said. “If they come together like we think they can, we could be in for another good year.”
GAINESVILLE: NEED TO KNOW
MASCOT: Red Elephants
TEAM COLORS: Red and White
CURRENT REGION: 8-AAAAA
HEAD COACH/RECORD AT SCHOOL: Bruce Miller, 11th season, 106-21
2011 RECORD/ ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 12-2, won Region 8-AAA (fourth straight region championship), reached Class AAA semifinals
KEY LOSSES: WR Stephen Mason, four offensive line starters, CB Joseph Haley, DL Royal Freeman, DL Joseph Funk, LB Jason Johnson, S Eli Nwefo, DL Jeremiah Ledbetter
OFFENSIVE STYLE: Spread -- Gainesville's wide-open, four- and five-wide receiver sets attempt to string out defenses and get its playmakers in space.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: Jr. QB Deshaun Watson (3,251 yards passing, 41 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,073 yards rushing, 16 TDs in 2011), Sr. WR Keyontra Harrison (30-plus catches, 700-plus yards in 2011), Sr. WR Caleb Hayman, Sr. WR Lahius Leverette, Sr. OL Chase England, Jr. RB Jay Gaudlock
DEFENSIVE STYLE: 3-4 -- the Red Elephants attack from multiple angles, blitzing from one spot, dropping in another.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: Sr. S Fred Payne, Sr. ILB Devon Stringer (120-plus tackles, led team), Sr. OLB Mike Pittman, Sr. CB T.K. Mize, Sr. DL Connor Calvert, Sr. DL Damian Grayson
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Wesley Cooper/Gage Turner, P Deshaun Watson/Chandler Newton
STRENGTH: Offensive skill players -- Between Watson, Harrison, Leverette and Hayman, the Red Elephants have plenty of talent and speed to man their spread attack. This year they also have depth backing up those starters, meaning another potentially explosive offense.
QUESTION: Offensive line -- After graduating four starters, Gainesville’s new men in the trenches will face a test of fire right out of the gate against West Forsyth and Buford.
KEY GAMES: The Red Elephants open -- on a Thursday night at City Park (Aug. 30) -- against West Forsyth, which reached the Class AAAAA quarterfinals last season, falling to eventual state champ Grayson. And week two doesn’t get any easier, as Gainesville travels to face Buford (Sept. 7). The Red Elephants also host two of the three teams that tied for the Region 8-AAAA championship, as Heritage (Conyers) comes to City Park on Oct. 28, while Clarke Central pays a visit on Oct. 19. Gainesville closes out the regular season with a visit to Flowery Branch (Nov. 9).
TRENDING: Outside of Buford, Gainesville has arguably been the top program in north Georgia for the past four seasons, going 48-6 and winning four straight region titles in that span -- which also includes being Class AAA runner-up and a state semifinal appearance. It will be interesting to see how the Red Elephants adjust to their new region and classification, but there is still more than enough talent on the roster to keep Gainesville in the postseason hunt.
Aug. 30 vs. West Forsyth (Thursday)
Sept. 7 at Buford
Sept. 14 at Winder-Barrow
Sept. 21 vs. Apalachee
Sept. 28 vs. Heritage, Conyers
Oct. 5 at Cedar Shoals
Oct. 12 at Salem
Oct. 19 vs. Clarke Central
Nov. 2 vs. Loganville
Nov. 9 at Flowery Branch
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