Franklin County at North Hall
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Brickyard, Gainesville
Coaches: Franklin County, Tommy Welch; North Hall, Bob Christmas
Records: Franklin County (3-4, 2-1 Region 8-AAA North); North Hall (4-3, 3-0)
Key players: Franklin County, QB Kevin Harris (6-0, 190 Sr.), RB Shaun Pulliam (5-8, 170 Sr.), RB Andrew Heaton (5-9, 175 Jr.). North Hall, RB/LB Imani Cross (6-2, 230 Sr.), FB Caleb Faulkner (5-9, 175 Jr.), FS Andrew Smith (5-8, 145 So.).
Prediction: NORTH HALL. The Lions should give North Hall a test, but the Trojans are playing their best football at the right time of year and have a showdown with Stephens County in their sights.
Each time a North Hall running back has had a big game this season, the credit has gone to the offensive line.
"Without them, I’m nothing." That’s fullback Caleb Faulkner after his 100-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over White County.
"My offensive line gave me great lanes to run through tonight. The success tonight is owed to them." That’s halfback Imani Cross after his 280-yard, three-touchdown showing in a win over Chestatee.
It all might sound a little obvious or polite or both. After all, few running backs have ever had much success without holes to run through, and a good teammate doesn’t take the credit for himself. But it’s what North Hall coach Bob Christmas says about his offensive line that grabs one’s attention.
"This might be the best group we’ve had since I’ve been here," Christmas said of the 10 linemen and two tight ends who comprise the Trojans’ two-deep front line.
Now that’s a mouthful.
Consider: Christmas’ 10 previous seasons at the school have included eight winning seasons, seven trips to the playoffs, and a state semifinalist in 2007 that averaged 50 points per game in the regular season.
So what makes this group so special?
Size, athleticism, and perhaps most importantly, depth. The Trojans (4-3, 3-0 Region 8-AAA North) substitute freely on the line with a rotation that includes six seniors.
"We can keep these guys fresh out there," Christmas said. "We don’t get hardly any fall-off. I think the line coach considers them all starters, so we roll them in pretty equally."
This year’s group doesn’t have a mammoth, sure-fire Division-I prospect like former starter Daniel Blitch, a 6-foot-6, 300-plus pounder now at Wake Forest. What it does have is a group of four tackles — Jay Hebert, Patrick Chappell, John Mancin and Dylan Truelove — who average 6-2 and 250 pounds, and a center in Avery Easton who stands 6-3, 255.
Christmas is also enthusiastic about his guards, who look like they were cut from a wing-T template. Other than 6-2 senior Ethan Nunally, they’re stocky, athletic and thrive on open-field blocking.
"We like a guard that’s a little bit shorter and can get out and run," Christmas said. "So we’ll take our smaller linemen that move well and we’ll put them at guard early on."
These are the players you’ll often see pulling around the end on a sweep, looking for a loose linebacker or an uncovered defensive back as Cross picks his way through the wreckage for big gains.
"What I see when I run behind them is a hole," Cross said. "It’s a joy to run behind them, because they work hard, and when they finish the play, they get back in the huddle and then do it again."
The linemen aren’t looking for any glory, though.
"That’s just what we do," said senior Cam Howell, a 5-8, 220-pound guard. "We don’t like to pass the ball, because we don’t like to drop back in pass blocking. We like to run at people and attack people and that’s what we get to do."
It’s what North Hall has been known for under Christmas, and lately it’s been working especially well.
In their current four-game winning streak, the Trojans are averaging 347 rushing yards per game and 8.3 yards per carry. In three of those games they’ve averaged better than 9 yards per rush. Cross, a Tennessee verbal commit, has gained the bulk of those yards, going for 1,245 on 125 carries this season.
"That’s what I’d hoped for," Christmas said. "I felt like with our offensive line and then you throw a back like Imani Cross in there behind them, where he can square his shoulders up and get moving good, I felt like we had the potential to do that. And then Caleb Faulkner and (running back) Zac Little have really come on, and that helps. It helps Imani, it helps everybody because you can’t really key just on Imani."
The emergence of the North Hall running game has helped the Trojans shake off a troubling start to the season. Playing a tough slate that included Jefferson (5-2), St. Pius X (7-0, No. 2 Class AAA) and Gainesville (6-1, No. 9 Class AAA), North Hall began the season with three straight losses. The offense had some success, but their 18.7 points per game in the losses is more than doubled by the 43.3 per game they’re scoring during the winning streak.
Some of the turnaround, no doubt, is due to a difference in the level of competition. But the Trojans say they’ve seen a change from within, as well.
"We’re getting there," said Easton, the junior center. "You can tell every week we’re getting better. I think when we lost those first three games we were too worried about our potential. But after that Gainesville game we’ve been a lot more focused and we’ve started doing what we can do."
The next chance for the Trojans to show what they can do comes tonight in a pivotal 8-AAA North match-up with Franklin County. The Trojans are tied atop the subregion with Stephens County (6-1, 3-0), while the Lions (3-4, 2-1) are just a game off the pace and have already taken a loss against Stephens.
A win for North Hall tonight sets up a de facto subregion championship game with the Indians next week, but before that can happen, North Hall must dispatch the suddenly hot Lions. Franklin County has won back-to-back games over Lumpkin County and Chestatee by a combined score of 73-13.
The Lions favor the ground game, leaning on their triple-option offense to chew up yardage and break big plays, but quarterback Kevin Harris showed Franklin County’s versatility in last week’s win over Chestatee, passing for four touchdowns and running for one. A week earlier against Lumpkin County, junior Andrew Heaton (12 carries, 138 yards) and senior Shaun Pulliam (16 carries, 133 yards) led the way.
"I think they’re pretty good," Christmas said. "They’ve got good skill players and they run the Georgia Southern-style offense where you’ve got to play good assignment football and be really focused. They’re kind of in the boat we are; they’ve got some confidence now. Fortunately, we’ve got them at home and I think that always helps us, but they’re a tough opponent."
While the offense has stolen the headlines, the Trojans’ defense has improved at least as much during the last four games. After surrendering more than 43 points per game in its first three contests, North Hall is giving up less than nine points per game during its winning streak.
But for North Hall, winning football begins with the running game and a successful running game starts with the offensive line.
"We’ve just got to continue to block well," Christmas said. "That’s kind of our asset, so we need to rely on that."