High school football previews: Week 8
Curry a key piece in high-flying Flowery Branch offense
Monroe Area at Gainesville
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Bobby Gruhn Field
Coaches: Monroe Area, Matt Fligg; Gainesville, Bruce Miller
Records: Monroe Area (5-1, 2-0 Region 8-AAA South), Gainesville (5-1, 2-0).
Key players: Monroe Area, QB Floyd McCoy (5-9, 175 Sr.), DB/RB Darius Blackwell (5-10, 180 Sr.), RB Kwan Brooks (5-9, 155 So.). Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-2, 185 So.), DB Eli Nwefo (5-9, 175 Sr.), WR Stephen Mason (5-11, 170 Sr.).
Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants haven’t shown any sign of weakness yet on offense this year. Miller picks up win No. 100 on the Gainesville sideline.
Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller has really taken to his no-name defense.
That's the term of endearment he uses for the group that has helped the No. 10 Red Elephants (5-1, 2-0 Region 8-AAA) remain in contention for their fourth straight region title.
At a school where high-level college talent has come through almost on a yearly basis, the 2011 Gainesville defense is headed by a group more touted for its depth and cohesiveness, rather than its attention from Division-I scouts.
Since Gainesville's loss in Week 1 against Class AA's No. 1 Buford, the Red Elephants have not allowed more than 15 points in a game, and three times have held the other team to seven points or less.
"Our defense has improved tremendously since the start of the season," said Miller, who is going for win No. 100 as the Red Elephants coach tonight against Monroe Area (5-1, 2-0) at City Park. "I've seen steady improvement each and every game."
Like it was anticipated before the season began, tonight's game against the Purple Hurricanes will probably decide the subregion champion.
The Red Elephants' two remaining regular season games are at Walnut Grove (1-5, 0-2) and West Hall (2-4, 2-0), while Monroe Area has West Hall and Johnson (0-6, 0-2) remaining before the region play-in game.
"We're not going to discount West Hall, but a win against Monroe Area would be a big boost of confidence," said Red Elephants senior safety Eli Nwefo, who is the team leader in tackles with 64. "Beating Monroe Area is big for us to try and get the subregion title and eventually seeding for the playoffs."
Gainesville has shown it can match up well against any kind of offense. The Red Elephants fared well against North Hall's stout wing-T running game, held Franklin County's pesky triple-option attack to only two scores, and shut out Johnson and its talented pair of running backs.
Last Friday, the Red Elephants did just as well defensively against Oconee County and its vertical passing game.
"Our defense has a really good blend of players," Gainesville defensive coordinator Jim Pavao said. "We're not weak at any single position."
Probably the player on defense for Gainesville with the highest college potential is senior defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-foot-3, 235 pounds), who has racked up 29 tackles since moving to Gainesville from Orlando, Fla. a couple weeks into the season.
He moved to Gainesville to live with his sister and brother-in-law Stephen Nicholas, an outside linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.
Miller says he's already sent out tape on Ledbetter, a converted linebacker, and says he should have plenty of suitors by the time the season is complete.
"I feel like I add to our run support and can get in there and clog holes," Ledbetter said.
However, Miller says the tone for his defense is really set by the number of guys he can run in and out of the game in the front seven without missing a beat.
Pavao said he can typically play any combination of six down linemen, but played about a dozen in last Friday's 66-7 blowout against Oconee County.
"I feel like everyone on our defense can step up and has made an impact," Nwefo said. "The offense knows they can count on us to go out there and make the stop."
Miller and Pavao have also seen younger players step up and make a huge impact defensively like junior Damian Grayson did last Friday with two forced fumbles and an interception from the nose tackle position against Oconee County.
Grayson wasn't even penciled in as a starter during the summer, but has worked his way up the depth chart quickly.
"He's one of those kids that just keeps plugging along," Miller said. "They're all high-energy kids with a high motor."
Nwefo felt like the biggest boost for Gainesville's defense early in the season was containing North Hall and its senior running back Imani Cross (1,020 yards, 13 touchdowns this season).
The Red Elephants kept the Trojans from breaking any big plays in that game and held Cross to 125 yards on 25 carries. Even though Franklin County finished with more than 300 rushing yards against Gainesville, Nwefo feels like it was an accomplishment to stay on their assignments and, again, not allow any big plays.
Miller gives the credit to the work of Pavao and his staff.
"They do a great job as coaches of having our defense ready to play," Miller said.
One of the biggest supporters of the Red Elephants' defense is sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson (1,457 passing yards, 18 touchdowns).
Even though Gainesville is averaging 42 points per game and has scored more than 40 each of the past five outings, Watson has counted on the defense to keep the momentum on Gainesville's side on a couple of big occasions.
Against Johnson, Watson led the team down the field on the opening drive before throwing an interception. The defense didn't flinch. Gainesville got back on track in the second quarter with 41 points as part of a 47-0 victory.
"Any time we're struggling with the ball, they say, ‘don't worry, we're about to get the ball back for you,' Watson said. "And they're true to their word."
Friday is also big for Watson. He wants to make sure Miller earns his 100th win in such a big subregion match-up.
"If we win Friday, we know coach Miller will be real happy when he wakes up on Saturday morning," Watson said.