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Gainesville starts quest for repeat title at West Forsyth

POSTED: August 29, 2013 11:46 p.m.
Jared Putnam | The Times/

Gainesville's Brenquez Dukes lifts fellow linebacker Devan Stringer off the ground during a practice drill on Wednesday at Gainesville High.

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For all the eye-popping statistics that Deshaun Watson posted during his record-setting 2012 season, the categories where he avoided large numbers may have been just as important to Gainesville’s state championship run.

Watson finished the season with a modest eight interceptions in 15 games, despite throwing for 4,021 yards and 50 touchdowns on 434 passing attempts.

Seven of his eight picks came during the first two games of the season, including four in the Red Elephants’ 32-30 loss to West Forsyth in the opener.

Watson seemed to grow by leaps and bounds after those two rough outings, and he committed just one turnover through the air during his final 13 games.

Tonight, he will get a second shot at solving West Forsyth’s defense when the No. 1-ranked Red Elephants begin their title defense at the Wolverine Den in Cumming.

“In that ball game (last year) he forced some stuff,” Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said.

“I think it taught him to not force things, to just let it happen and to be very methodical about finding who’s open and who’s not open.”

Miller said he hasn’t seen a difference in his players’ approach to the game coming off the program’s first state championship in 87 years. Like every season opener, the Red Elephants are simply grateful for the opportunity to line up against someone other than their own teammates.

“You just look forward to it so much because you’ve been practicing against each other for so long,” Miller said. “Our kids are ready to player somebody in game conditions.”

While Gainesville returns most of the core group that led the program to the Class AAAAA state title in 2012, West Forsyth is without several key players from a squad that went 21-4 in Class AAAAA and AAAAAA over the past two seasons.

The Wolverines’ offseason losses included quarterback A.J. Erdely (3,243 total offensive yards, 33 touchdowns in 2012), who signed with Middle Tennessee State; wingback Jake Wieczorek (2,410 all-purpose yards, 25 touchdowns) and linebacker Mohamed Camara (90 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 INT), who is now at South Carolina.

West Forsyth brings back junior running back Trevor O’Brien, who rushed for 800 yards last season as a sophomore, while Wieczorek has been replaced by senior Gabe Pierce.

Under center, junior Hampton McConnell edged senior John Conway for the right to be Erdely’s successor. The versatile McConnell was a starting receiver for the Wolverines during his sophomore season.

“He’s got some experience and he’s pretty athletic,” West Forsyth coach Frank Hepler said of McConnell, “so we’re excited to see him play.”

One thing West Forsyth has not lost is size.

Led by 6-foot-5, 270-pound center Andrew Marshall, who has an offer from Georgia Tech, the Wolverines boast a massive group of offensive linemen who have dubbed themselves the “Whale Squad.”

“They’re huge,” Miller said. “We saw them play Friday night in the scrimmage against Central Gwinnett and I thought, ‘Wow, is anybody on the team small?’

“Coach Helper and his coaching staff just do such a great job of taking what they’ve got and molding it into a very good team. They don’t seem to beat themselves.”

The Wolverines also bring back four experienced defensive linemen in Josh Davis, Brett Anderson, Alec Coburn and Hunter Stewart.

Meanwhile, Gainesville features two new starters on the defensive line and three more on the offensive line.
Both coaches believe the battle at the line scrimmage will be key tonight.

“I really think you win football games up front,” Hepler said.

“I know the game is changing into the spread offenses and 3-3 defenses and such, but I really think you win games up front.”

The other key for Gainesville, Miller says, is getting playmakers in open space.

Freeing up playmakers was a struggle for Gainesville during the 2012 meeting with West Forsyth. The Wolverines elected not to pressure Watson much of that game and instead often dropped eight players into coverage.

“I thought they defensed us really well last year,” Miller said. “But, they may not feel like they have the (personnel) to do that this year and they may come after us.”

Said Hepler: “They’ve got great running backs, too. We cannot afford to drop eight guys back in the secondary and just defend the quarterback, we’re trying to be multiple.”

Regardless of the kind of looks West Forsyth shows Gainesville tonight, Miller has a pretty good idea of what to expect from his squad.

Mistakes will be made. Weaknesses will be exposed.

It’s all part of the process each year.

“The first games just offer you a whole different set of challenges than any other games of the year,” Miller said.
“You find out a lot about your team in the first and second games. You find out a lot about what you’ve got to work on.”

Tonight’s game marks the fourth meeting between the two squads since West Forsyth opened in 2007.

Gainesville holds a 2-1 lead in the all-time series.


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