Posted: Monday, August 13th 2012 at 9:36am
Football 2012: Branch set to roll through changes
By Morgan Lee Editor
FLOWERY BRANCH -- On the surface, Chris Griffin says that Flowery Branch football won’t look much different this season than it has in becoming one of the top programs in north Georgia.
“Football-wise there’s nothing drastic; we’re playing with same styles of offense and defense, and we’ve got a lot of kids back from last season,” said Griffin, the Falcons’ longtime defensive coordinator, who took over as head coach for Lee Shaw. (Shaw began the Flowery Branch program in 2002 and left this offseason to take the head football job at his alma mater Rabun County.)
That doesn’t mean everything has stayed the same at “The Branch,” however, and there has certainly been plenty of adjustment for Griffin.
“I’m seeing things from a different perspective: I have to look at the big picture now,” Griffin said. “I’m still me though, and though we kept a lot of what we used to do I’m going to add my own little wrinkles. It’s just natural.
“We’ve only got three coaches that were holdovers from the last season, so over course some things are going to change.”
That does not include the base styles of offense and defense that the Falcons have employed to some effect over the past decade. Flowery Branch will continue to spread it out on offense and attack from numerous positions on defense.
While much of the personnel on both sides of the ball remains the same -- 15 total starters return -- there has been some significant turnover, especially on offense, where junior quarterback Jackson McDonald steps in to fill a position that has been manned by four straight Division I signees (in order Jaybo Shaw, Connor Shaw, Austin Brown and Kanler Coker).
“His growth has been phenomenal,” Griffin said of McDonald. “He had a learning curve in the spring and summer, but the maturity we’ve seen in him and his decision making has been great. We’ve turned up the heat on him in practice and we’ve been unbelievably impressed. He knows there’s going to be some adversity when he gets out there, but we’re just going to have to handle it.”
McDonald will be aided by an experienced and sizable offensive line that includes four returning starters, led by Chandler Bridges (a Louisville commit). He will also have a deep and athletic receiving corps, led by seniors Jamaad Stephens (33 catches, 474 yards, 5 TDs in 2011), Cris Dilidili (16 catches, 251 yards, 2 TDs) and Darius Curry.
The other big question comes at running back, where the Falcons will look to replace graduated standout Jeremy Haley. Flowery Branch will likely use a number of ball carriers, though senior Quinton Mayfield is making a push to earn the starting position.
“Quinton’s been a nice surprise,” Griffin said. “He’s more of a scatback than the bruisers we’ve had back there over the past few years.”
Another surprise may be on defense, where senior lineman Dexter Jackson (6-foot-4, 320 pounds) could own the nose guard position in the Falcons’ 3-4 base. He will be flanked by junior defensive ends Thor Smith and RJ Deyton.
Linebacker Jacob Allen led the team in tackles as a junior and is back to plug the middle, while Blake Turner has moved from safety to join Allen inside. Gabe Takacs and Kris Smith will hold down the outside linebacker spots.
Meanwhile, Division I recruit Curry will man one cornerback spot, while Justin Thomson, Noel Padmore and Mayfield also play key roles.
“Those guys at linebacker and defensive back have pretty much all been under the spotlight; they don’t get flustered,” said Griffin, who has turned defensive coordinator duties over to Felix Curry.
“He’s still going to bring pressure from everywhere,” Griffin said. “We’re just changing some things with how the secondary covers. I was very basic in my coverages, and he’s changed some things up.”
The Falcons move up to Class AAAAA shouldn’t prove daunting, as they maintained much of the same region they played against the past two seasons in 8-AAAA -- a region that just eluded their grasp on both occasions when Clarke Central pulled off victories in late season games (including last year when a 38-35 win for the Gladiators in Athens created a three-way tie for the region title that was decided by a coin flip).
“I think we had a little bit of a case of satisfaction last season before we got to that game,” Griffin said. “We can’t be satisfied. We’ve got a lot of potential on this team, but potential is useless; it’s never won a ballgame.”
The Falcons will open the season in the spotlight, hosting 2011 Class AAAA semifinalist Northside-Warner Robins in a game that may be moved to Sept. 1 to accommodate television.
“I was striking out on the early schedule, so I decided to go out and find a good measuring stick,” Griffin said. “The kids are excited about the chance. Northside’s got a tremendous tradition, and it will be one of the biggest games in the state that weekend.”
FLOWERY BRANCH: NEED TO KNOW
TEAM COLORS: Black, Red and White
CURRENT REGION: 8-AAAAA
HEAD COACH/RECORD AT SCHOOL: Chris Griffin, first season (spent several years as team’s defensive coordinator)
2011 RECORD/ ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 11-2, reached Class AAAA quarterfinals
KEY LOSSES: QB Kanler Coker (2,833 yards passing, 837 yards rushing, 46 total TDs), RB Jeremy Haley (1,350 yards, 21 TDs), WR CJ Curry (805, 13 TDs), WR Casey Osborne (994 yards, 9 TDs), DL Jonathan Frick, LB Sidney Cheeks, LB Quinncy Hodges
OFFENSIVE STYLE: Spread option -- the Falcons will keep defenses under constant pressure with their mix of passing and running options. Flowery Branch possesses the type of players who can score quickly or churn out long drives.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: Jr. QB Jackson McDonald, 4 starters on offensive line, WR Darius Curry, Sr. WR Jamaad Stephens (33 catches, 474 yards, 5 TDs in 2011), Sr. WR Cris Dilidili (16 catches, 251 yards, 2 TDs), Sr. RB Quinton Mayfield
DEFENSIVE STYLE: 3-4 -- Flowery Branch has altered how its secondary will cover and line up in certain situations, but the Falcons will still bring pressure and attack from a number of angles.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: Sr. LB Jacob Allen (leading tackler in 2011), Sr. CB Darius Curry (Oklahoma St. commit), Sr. DB Noel Padmore (Ole Miss commit), Sr. DL Dexter Jackson (6-4, 320 pounds), Sr. LB Blake Turner, Jr. DE Thor Smith
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sr. P Lucas Arnett, Jr. PK Alejandro Montoya (still battling for the position as of publication time)
STRENGTH: Experience -- the Falcons have 15 returning starters from last season’s Class AAAA quarterfinalists, including a mammoth offensive line and stacked linebacker and defensive secondary positions.
QUESTION: Offensive backfield -- Flowery Branch has shown over the past two seasons it has no problem putting new faces at the QB spot that will shine. Jackson McDonald will look to do that again this season and will be the first junior QB to play for the Falcons since Connor Shaw in 2008. Meanwhile, Flowery Branch must also replace an outstanding running back in Haley. The Falcons will likely do so by committee, but Quinton Mayfield -- a defensive back by nature -- is making a charge to be a headliner at the position (he will continue to play defense as well).
KEY GAMES: The Falcons will open with a home game against a Class AAAA semifinalist from a year ago in Northside-Warner Robins (Aug. 31). Flowery Branch closes the season with perhaps its two biggest games and against its two biggest rivals -- Oct. 26 at Clarke Central (which defeated Flowery Branch in a shootout last season and 21-0 in 2010) and Nov. 9 at home to Gainesville (with a bye week in between).
TRENDING: After four straight seasons of double digit wins and seven straight years reaching the state playoffs, the Falcons are now among the premier programs in north Georgia. It will be interesting to see how Flowery Branch adjusts after losing the man who started it all in Lee Shaw, but the Falcons’ longtime defensive coordinator, Chris Griffin, is ready to maintain the level of quality and has certainly seen what it takes firsthand.
Aug. 31 vs. Northside, Warner Robins
Sept. 7 at West Forsyth
Sept. 14 at Cedar Shoals
Sept. 21 vs. Loganville
Sept. 28 at Salem
Oct. 5 at Apalachee
Oct. 12 vs. Winder-Barrow
Oct. 19 vs. Heritage, Conyers
Oct. 26 at Clarke Central
Nov. 9 vs. Gainesville
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