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Big Red adjusts to departing stars

POSTED: June 11, 2014 12:00 p.m.
Photo Courtesy The Times/

All-American Deshaun Watson eludes the defense at the annual Gainesville-Flowery Branch rivalry game, which the Red Elephants won 55-45. Watson will potentially compete for the starting job at Clemson in 2014.

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The Gainesville Red Elephants are one of the oldest, most respected football traditions in the state of Georgia, but the past is not the only fond memory Gainesville has. Under Bruce Miller, the Red Elephants have enjoyed one of the most consistently successful periods of any football team in Georgia history, rivaled only by Parkview’s dominance in the late 90’s and West Rome’s excellent early and mid 80’s. 

Coach Miller’s team has never missed the state playoffs, and they have only once twice a first round exit. Since 2002, Miller’s Gainesville squad has an immaculate 25-11 postseason record with three state semifinals appearances and two shots at a state title with one ring to show for it in 2012.

That ring would be the crowning achievement of Miller’s most recent graduating class, which left Gainesville with a 46-9 overall record. The graduating seniors in the class of 2013 not only won a state championship, but they also ended their season in the state semifinals twice.

“When you graduate a Deshaun Watson, and you graduate several classes back-to-back, you always wonder if you’ll be able to maintain that success, but I can say this. After our kids have been involved in 7-on-7 leagues, our kids are ready for the challenge,” Gainesville’s head football coach, Bruce Miller stated.

The star of Miller’s most recent class is of course All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson, who can now be seen playing on Saturdays for Clemson’s Tigers. Watson finished his career as the only quarterback in Georgia to have thrown for more than 10,000 yards. In 2013, Watson threw for 3,775 while rushing for 1,057 yards for a total of 63 touchdowns through the air or on the ground.

“Everybody would love to have an All-American quarterback every year,” Miller joked. 

Unfortunately, the Red Elephants will be short one All-American next season with Watson’s departure as the most prolific quarterback in Georgia high school football history.  

Instead, Big Red will likely rely on Mikey Gonzalez, who spent three years learning under Watson and sitting in every quarterback meeting with the all-time legend. Of course, sitting behind such an incredible talent brings other advantages. In addition to learning from Watson’s skills and approach to the game, Gonzalez also got to play quite a few snaps.

“He’s been in every meeting we’ve ever had,” Miller pointed out. “There were at least four games last season where we pulled Deshaun after the first half, so Mikey’s had plenty of time playing quarterback in varsity football games.”

While Gonzalez has experience playing the position, he plays it differently from his mentor and predecessor. While Watson was known for his ability to scramble and hurt opponents with his legs, Gonzalez takes a more traditional pocket-passer approach to football.

“He is a good high school quarterback,” Miller said of Gonzalez. I think the worst thing you could do with Deshaun was flush him out of the pocket sometimes.

“Gonzalez is a brilliant quarterback,” Miller elaborated. “It’s a question of him just getting out there utilizing his receivers and us adapting to things he can do and not ask him to do things he can’t do. Him seeing the holes in the coverage and seeing the soft spots in the coverage before the ball is even snapped…I would have all the confidence in the world that he’s checking off and knows what he’s checking to.”

For four years, Gainesville has followed Watson’s lead in offensive philosophy and attack. Now, with the change at quarterback, Gainesville has to find a new identity on the gridiron.

“We were so quarterback oriented and so run oriented, that now we’re going to have to spread the ball around a little bit more,” Miller noted. “Our defense is definitely going to have to play better. Not that we were bad, but I don’t think we’re going to be in as many situations where we’re up 40-0 at halftime. I don’t think we’re going to be afforded that privilege.”

For that defense, Miller wants his team to hold their ground as usual and keep playing hard-nose football, even though that defense may not have the same cushion to play with.

“We’re very attack oriented on defense. We want to meet you on the other side of the line of scrimmage,” Miller explained. “We want to create as much confusion as we can in your offensive scheme, whether it’s by blitzing or change of alignment. We want to make things as confusing as possible.”

The strategy seems to work, too, because the 2013 Red Elephants held region opponents to just 17 points on average. Linebacker Devan Stringer was a big part of that with six tackles for a loss, five interceptions and four sacks.

“We have to use our team speed because we don’t have a lot of size. Fortunately right now, we’ve got those kinds of kids in our program.”

On offense, those changes in philosophy will be both more obvious and more subtle.

“The pressure is really on our offensive line to protect Mikey because Mikey’s not the scrambler that Deshaun was,” Miller offered. 

 “I think that, as high school coaches, we have to do more than any other coaches in adapting to our talent year after year and seeing what gets off the school bus and seeing where you can plug guys in,” Miller added. “We have to adjust to our talent instead of saying, ‘Well, you’re going to have to do the same thing we’ve always been doing.’”

In addition, Miller was quick to admit that the new batch of receivers will also have big shoes to fill, as they step in for a pair of talented departing seniors.

“I think right now, the pressure also lies on our receivers because we graduated two very good seniors,” Miller explained, referencing Jay Gaudlock and Rodney Lackey.

Gaudlock finished 2013 with 1,276 receiving yards on 94 receptions for a total of 15 scores. He was followed by Lackey’s 59 receptions and 12 scores for a grand total of 807 receiving yards.

“Losing [Gaudlock] and his awareness and his ability on the field…is going to be a tough thing,” Miller added.

With so much talent leaving Gainesville for the next level, prognosticators could predict the returning pack to provide a pittance on the previous offense, and Miller admits there are problems, but he has faith in his team nonetheless.

“As far as we’re concerned, I don’t think there’s as much depth as there has been in the past, but I think that we’ve still got some very talented, talented kids, and I hope that will make up the difference,” Miller optimistically stated.

Although the quarterback position has been an anchor for the last four years and provided crucial stability for the Elephants, they are still used to change and know how to respond.

Between 2011 and 2012, Gainesville bumped up two classifications from Class-AAA to Class-AAAAA. Once again, while people might could have expected a less than impressive showing from the perennial powerhouse with moving up two classifications, they had an ultimately successful season. They won the Class-AAAAA state title in their first year.

“Our kids are very adaptable,” Miller explained. “They rise to the challenge over and over again. It seems like the tougher it is, the better they play.

“When we moved to AAAAA, we were going, ‘Wow, what have we jumped into?’ Our kids just rose to the challenge, and when we got to the state playoffs, it just felt like everything went right for us.”

While Miller may not be so bold as to guarantee that his squad will get back to that point, he readily admits that they believe it can and will happen.

“To talk to our kids about winning region championships, that’s important, but if you say something to the effect that we probably couldn’t win the state championship this year, they’re ready to fight you,” Miller pointed out. “If you stand up in a team meeting and talk to them about anything less than winning a state championship, they kind of get offended and take it very personally.”

The 2014 Gainesville football team will have a few disadvantages from the previous four seasons, but they may actually hold one or two unexpected aces up their sleeves. For starters, this season’s crew may have more experience in close games than the2013 state semifinalists.

In 2013, Gainesville never won a game by one score. Their closest victory was a 10-point win over Flowery Branch to close out the regular season and seal the Region 8-AAAAA crown, but their previous closest victory was a 28-point squeaker against Clarke Central.

All told, Gainesville’s average margin of victory last season was 35.25 points.

So, when the usual champs came up against a close game at Tucker in the state semifinals, they were not fully prepared to fight through that situation.

“In the past, we haven’t been very clock oriented,” Miller noted.

“I think the more you’re in those situations and the more you learn how to handle them…I think to be in that situation when the game’s on the line, you grow from it. And the more you seem to come out of those situations and win, the more you come out of there thinking you can win,” Miller stated. “I have a feeling we’re going to be in a lot more of those situations this season, so our kids are going to have to learn how to play in close games.”

Maybe, just maybe, Gainesville coming back down to reality could be exactly what they need in order to capture another state championship. Then again, with Region 8-AAAAA poised to be at its most competitive level ever across the board, that seeming advantage may prove to be the chink in that armor which has been so impenetrable for so long.

“I think it’s going to come down to how we rise to the level of competition each week,” Miller acknowledged. “The playing field will be a lot more level.”

 

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