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Season opener a matchup of titans

POSTED: August 26, 2010 10:02 p.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Gainesville High's A.J. Johnson, left, and Dickens Wilson collide during practice Tuesday afternoon at the Gainesville High practice field. The red Elephants will host Buford High this Friday at Bobby Gruhn Field.

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When Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller walked out of the Region 8-AAA meetings earlier this year, he looked at his schedule, saw an open date to start the year, and made a phone call.

Most coaches in his position might have called an inferior opponent; one he knew his team could beat so the Red Elephants could start the 2010 season on a high note. Miller went the other route. He called Jess Simpson, coach of the three-time defending Class AA champion Buford Wolves.

“What a great opportunity to kick off the season with a great game,” Simpson said Wednesday. “You have two proud programs, two city schools that are close to each other, two proud communities, and the icing on the cake is it’s two teams that were in the state championship last year.”

According to Miller, that’s the way it should be.

“They won a state championship, and we came in second,” Miller said. “We should be playing.”

Most people probably wish these two programs would have played last year when Gainesville’s roster was littered with Division-I talent and Buford was on the way to its third straight title.

“Last year brought on the game,” Miller said. “But we needed to play them.

“If you want your program to get somewhere, you have to play good folks,” he added. “I could have called around, but I felt we needed to play Buford.”

And in the same turn, Buford needed to play Gainesville, a program rich in tradition, and one that can test the Wolves defense with its spread offense.

“This early in the year, it’s hard for us to simulate that in practice,” Simpson said of Gainesville’s offense. “We don’t run the spread, so it’s hard to show them the spread. There’s a lot of unknowns there; we have a huge challenge.”

While Gainesville is also filled with unknowns — it lost 16 starters from last year’s team and as of Wednesday had yet to name a starting quarterback — Miller knows what to expect from the Wolves.

“To plan for them, you better get ready to be hit,” he said. “You’re gonna get hit. If you’re afraid to get hit, you may want to go home and watch the TV set Friday night.”

Chances are most people won’t simply want to watch this game on TV, and although it might have been more tantalizing last year and both teams are young and fairly inexperienced this year, that doesn’t mean tonight’s game will feature a pair of rebuilding programs.

“In a place like Buford or Gainesville, you don’t mention rebuilding years,” Simpson said. “You just hopefully start over.

“I tell my guys all the time, ‘nobody cares who’s in the gold helmets, they just expect a certain brand of football.’”

Miller is one of those people.

“Buford’s gonna be a smash mouth-type of football team,” Miller said. “If your kids can react to that, and handle that, then you have a chance to be good as the year goes on.”

Playing the Wolves also serves solid indicator as to what Gainesville has in place of graduated stars like Tai-ler Jones, Thomas Sprague, Daunte Carr, Teryan Rucker and Blake Sims, the do-it-all quarterback who will be replaced by the tandem of freshman Deshaun Watson and junior Stephen Mason.

As of Wednesday, Miller was noncommittal when it came to who would be the starting quarterback.

“Both had good weeks of practice and both are gonna play,” he said.

Aside from taking snaps, both have also played wide receiver and Miller called Mason, “one of the best natural receivers” he’s “had in a while.”

The question mark at quarterback is part uncertainty and part gamesmanship.

“Buford doesn’t know who they’re gonna see,” Miller said. “Any time you can keep an opponent like Buford guessing, I think you’re playing the odds in your favor.”

A win for either team means little in the standings, but when two programs of this caliber meet up, everyone involved is hoping to escape with a victory.

“People want to see two good football programs, who have had success over the years, line up and play each other,” Miller said. “I think a lot of the people are thinking, ‘let’s see how good Gainesville is or think they are.’

“Our guys have a chance to prove that (tonight).”



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