High school football
Class A private: Prince Avenue Christian vs. Eagle’s Landing Christian, 2:30 p.m.
Class AAA: Buford vs. St. Pius X, 5:30 p.m.
Class AAAAA: Gainesville vs. Ware County, 8:30 p.m.
Class A public: Dooly County vs. ECI, 11:30 a.m.
Class AA: Jefferson vs. Calhoun, 2:30 p.m.
Class AAAA: Ridgeland vs. Sandy Creek, 5:30 p.m.
Class AAAAAA: Norcross vs. Lovejoy, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets are $18 on presale through the schools and $20 at the Georgia Dome.
Senior center Chase England is so grateful for the state championship game he’s about to play in for Gainesville, one he’s been dreaming about since he first threw on a jersey at age 8. England says the Red Elephants’ rapid-fire offensive system he anchors up front deserves a fair share of the credit for earning them a berth in the Class AAAAA title game against Ware County on Friday night at the Georgia Dome.
“There’s no offensive system that I’d rather play in than what we do here at Gainesville,” England said. “There’s no way for a team to simulate in practice what they’re going to see when they play against us.”
Gainesville’s no-huddle, up-tempo system of a spread offense is designed to maximize snaps, give receivers a chance to get open and make plays, while also trying to fatigue the opposing defense since there’s no time to catch a breath between snaps.
So far, it’s worked as designed. With 9,045 career passing yards, junior quarterback Deshaun Watson needs just 17 Friday to become the state’s all-time leading passer. The Red Elephants (11-3) have six receivers with at least 30 catches this season. The team has scored at least 60 points twice in the postseason.
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller, who installed the shotgun offense in 2007, says that it has been tailored to the athletes that he’s coached.
“We’re going to snap the ball as soon as the ref lets us,” Miller said.
Miller’s used more short passing and screen plays to make sure Watson gets rid of the ball fast and limit his chances of taking too many hits. The Red Elephants’ coach shoots for at least 70 plays per game, but maxed out at 90 in the first-round playoff win against Rome at City Park Stadium.
Every year, Miller says he’ll tinker with some elements of the offense. However, the positives to running this system, which is rising in popularity in the college game, have remained the same. Skill players like the fact that they are responsible for “finding the grass” and making plays.
It’s also beneficial with a smaller offensive line since they tend to be able to handle the faster pace of constantly moving without getting too tired.
“It’s a little like backyard football,” Miller admitted. “It’s like go to the pine tree and take a left.”
And Miller says a no-huddle, up-tempo offense like the Red Elephants run is really dangerous when they are backed up deep in their own territory and space is limitless to get open down field.
“It would be hard to convince me that this is not the best offense to be in,” Miller said.
If there is a drawback to their offense, Miller says sometimes it is tough for players to feel quite as confident near the goal line, when room to run is a little more compact, even though the play calling doesn’t change. Also, it puts more pressure on the defense since scoring drives are faster and that side of the ball tends to spend more time on the field.
However, Gainesville has shown to be a nearly unstoppable offense, averaging 45 points per game. The Red Elephants have been held under 20 just once this season, a 19-15 win at Buford on Sept. 7.
England says that the speed is what makes all the difference. The offense for Gainesville from his standpoint is more about conditioning and execution than terminology.
“We’re moving so fast, that by the time we line up on the offensive line, the defensive line across from us has very little time to adjust,” England said.
Miller says it takes only about three days to instill the basics of the offense. In turn, athletes gravitate to this kind of system that lends itself to the passing game.
Watson’s job as quarterback is a little more complex. As soon as he releases the ball, he’s already thinking about the next play. Since learning the offense first in the seventh grade, he’s become much more comfortable with the assignments and concepts of what the players around him are supposed to do.
“To me, it was easy to catch on,” Watson said. “I’m always reading the coverages and looking for any weaknesses in the defense.”
In the pregame, Watson says that offensive coaches tell him the first 13 plays they’ll run in order, so he doesn’t have to stop and think about it.
He’s also got three sets of instructions to call out to the rest of the offense at the line of scrimmage, so that every one is on the same page: One to the running backs, and assignments to carry out for each side of the wide receivers.
“The best thing for us is that, we know if we do our job, Deshaun will always do his job,” England said. “Our offensive line prides itself on giving a championship effort on every play.”
After last week’s win against Whitewater in the state semifinals, Watson now holds the state record in career touchdowns for a quarterback (150) and career touchdown passes (105). This season Watson has passed for 3,707 yards and 47 touchdowns, while also leading the team in rushing with 1,356 yards and 22 more scores.
Gainesville’s receiving stats are spread out between Rodney Lackey (64 catches, 938 yards), Caleb Hayman (46 for 721), Tray Harrison (41 for 588), running backs Michael Byrd (37 for 399) and Jay Gaudlock (34 for 310), and senior receiver Lahius Leverette (30 for 438).
Conditioning for the up-tempo offense is probably the most difficult aspect, says England. Miller and his staff can go through the entire sheet of plays in one session, and with the pace of the practice, it leaves players drained.
To get used to racing up and down the field, two team managers will spot the ball, one to get the ball at the end of each play and another to get the ball down for the next snap.
Miller says there’s no need for sprints at the end of practice: They do enough of that by the time they take the final snap each afternoon.
England says that the workload in practice is more mental preparation and dress rehearsal as they approach the championship game.
“I remember during the practices in August and September, I was dead tired by the time we were done,” England said. “All I wanted to do was go home and sleep.”
Miller first became a disciple of the shotgun offense after attending a Tony Franklin seminar in Nashville, Tenn., five years ago. He admitted at first it was out of his comfort zone, after running a wing-T the previous 12 seasons, but was willing to give it a try. Franklin was a longtime high school coach who lectured and led seminars about running the offense, and is now the offensive coordinator at the University of California.
Miller first tinkered with some shotgun play as an under-performing and overmatched Gainesville lost in the first-round of the 2006 season at Carrollton. He said that first trial late in the game worked so well it piqued his interest, knowing most of those Red Elephants would be back the 2007 season.
“That 2007 season, I was just trying to get my feet wet running the system,” Miller said.
However, it didn’t take long to figure out it worked out extremely well. In his first season running the shotgun, senior quarterback Justin Fordham passed for 3,200 yards and leading receivers Gerald Ford (90 catches) and Tyler Adetona (75) emerged as two of the best in Class AAA.
Then in 2008 and 2009, the Red Elephants had dual-threat quarterback Blake Sims (now at Alabama) and wide receiver T.J. Jones (now at Notre Dame) shine with this fast-paced style of offense.
While in middle school, Watson watched Sims and saw how the offense was supposed to work before he took over as starter as a freshman.
“Now Deshaun is like a coach on the field for us he knows the system so well,” Miller said.