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Gainesville's passing game is a well-oiled machine

Led by strong arm of Watson, four solid receivers

POSTED: November 16, 2011 6:56 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS | The Times/

Gainesville High has one of the state's most prolific passing game led by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, with plenty of help from a receiving corps of Justin Cantrell (5), Tray Harrison (3), Stephen Mason (10), and Lahius Leverette (16).

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Imagine for a minute that Gainesville's offense in practice is like a science lab experiment, except with moving parts and bodies in motion.

That's the only way that Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller can describe what's going on with the high-powered passing game, which hasn't changed a bit in preparing for Friday's second round playoff game against Monroe-Albany (6-5) on Friday at City Park Stadium.

"We're always working on the product that we're going to put out on the field," said Miller. "We're always out there experimenting with things."

At the center of Gainesville's passing game is sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson (2,543 yards passing and 36 touchdowns), who has a strong right arm, precise touch, and is a quick study for everything that Miller throws his way in the playbook.

At his disposal, Watson has a talented group of receivers, including Stephen Mason, Lahius Leverette, Justin Cantrell and Tray Harrison, who each have at least 25 catches each this season and all average more than 10 yards per reception.

Most of the work developing the Red Elephants' offensive package is done during summer passing leagues and camps.

However, not a week goes by that Miller isn't throwing a new wrinkle into things to see what comes of it.

Based on the numbers, you can only come to the conclusion that things have worked very well. Gainesville (10-1) is averaging 462 yards of offense per game (249 of that passing) and just a shade under 45 points per game.

"We come out every day and try something new," said Watson, who has more than 3,000 yards of offense this year. "If it works, we'll try it in the game and if not, we'll put it to the side."

And Gainesville fans know they have a good thing going based on what transpires on Friday nights.

Time and time again, thanks to great blocking by the offensive line, Watson can move and adjust back in the pocket, then sling a spiral that only his receiver can grab.

In addition, Miller adds that Watson is confident enough in his abilities to know he can thread it between defenders.

"Deshaun has all the tools at quarterback," Miller said. "He can throw the long pass, short throw, finesse pass and can also fit it between two defenders."

"With Deshaun at quarterback, we just like to spread everyone out and use our speed to go get the ball," said Mason, the only senior of the group.

Watson's ceiling at quarterback is even greater considering his knowledge of the game.

He knows the playbook front to back, and can tell if the offense should be in a different play at the line of scrimmage based on what the defense is showing.

That's fine with Miller. In fact, Gainesville's coach encourages his 6-foot-2 quarterback to change the call before the snap if things don't look right.

"Deshaun has so much knowledge of the game," said Leverette (25 catches and 385 yards). "We're blessed to have a quarterback so good."

Watson, who was also an outside linebacker in middle school, said he and his receivers have been playing together for years, which helps considerably with the group's timing.

Cantrell is second on the team in receiving with 45 catches for 618 yards, but didn't move to wide receiver from running back until spring practice last year.

Miller made the move more out of necessity than anything else as others at the position were playing baseball.

That transition panned out pretty well, according to Miller, who calls the 6-2 Cantrell the toughest receiver of the bunch.

"I thought it was a good idea to move Justin to wide receiver," Watson said. "It's another big body to throw to."

Miller has labeled Mason as the best route runner of the group, while Leverette is the best all-around athlete.

And the 5-5 Harrison is the game-breaker, scoring long touchdowns by scooting, shuffling his feet and making defenders miss.

Last week against Dalton he took a simple screen pass from Watson and turned it into a 78-yard touchdown.

"The other team has to look at our offense and decide what they're going to try and defend," Miller said.

Leverette says there is no jockeying for more passes. The receivers know that Watson is going to make the best call. His job is just to take advantage of the opportunity when the ball comes his way.

"Every one of us can go make big plays when we get the chance," Leverette said.

Miller knew early that this could be a special season for Gainesville's passing game. Watson already had a full season under his belt.

The four primary receiver targets also had played the position long enough to stay on the same page with Watson.

Watson doesn't take the privilege of playing quarterback for granted. He's studying the playbook in the morning, during the day in weight training, then in the evening he picks it back up to go over things again.

However, he's smart enough to know that he can't do it on his own.

"The offensive line and receivers deserve all the credit for my big numbers," Watson said. "Without them, I wouldn't have anything."

With Gainesville's young quarterback already receiving attention from Division-I colleges, including an official offer from Clemson, Miller doesn't worry for a second how he's going to handle all the attention.

"With Deshaun, it's never been about Deshaun," Miller said. "He's the ultimate team player."

 



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