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Game of the Week: Showdown in Class AAAAA
No. 4 Flowery Branch welcomes No. 2 Northside-Warner Robins
Flowery Branch running back Justin Curry carries the ball during team practice Wednesday afternoon as the Falcons prepare to host Northside Warner Robins tonight at The Branch.

High school football previews: Week 2

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Falcon Field, Flowery Branch

Coaches: Northside, Kevin Kinsler; Flowery Branch, Chris Griffin

Records: Northside (0-0, 0-0 Region 2-AAAAA); Flowery Branch (0-0, 0-0 Region 8-AAAAA)

Key players: Northside, WR Keshun Hill (6-1, 195 Sr.), LB Trey Payne (6-0, 230 Sr.), DL Anfirnee Chatfield (6-0, 270 Sr.). Flowery Branch, WR/DB Darius Curry (6-2, 193 Sr.), LB Jacob Allen (6-1, 237 Sr.), OL Chandler Bridges (6-5, 269 Sr.).

Prediction: NORTHSIDE. In this early-season battle of state contenders, the Falcons must be considered the underdog. But don’t be shocked if they pull off the upset behind a highly talented defense.

FLOWERY BRANCH — No one needs to stress the importance of tonight’s game to any one in the Flowery Branch locker room. For a nonregion game, the anticipation could scarcely be greater for the fourth-ranked Falcons’ season-opening showdown with second-ranked Northside-Warner Robins.

Flowery Branch linebacker Jacob Allen said it was a chance to make a statement. His teammate Darius Curry called it “a pride thing.”

The reasons why are numerous: It’s the first game of the year and it features two top-five teams. It’s the first time Northside, a Middle Georgia power, has ever faced a Hall County team. It’s the first game in Flowery Branch’s 10-year history not coached by Lee Shaw. It’s the first game for his replacement, Chris Griffin as a head coach.

And it’s a chance for the Falcons to continue their ascent as an elite program.

Since opening in 2002, Flowery Branch has risen to become one of the preeminent teams in Northeast Georgia, winning at least nine games in seven straight seasons and winning at least 10 in six of those. A move up in classification during that time hardly served as a speed bump, and in their third year since moving up from Class AAA, the Falcons open the season in the top five in Class AAAAA, a sign of the respect they’ve earned.

Now, they’d like to take the next step, and beating a perennial state contender like Northside would send a message that Flowery Branch has truly arrived.

Both coaches touted the similarities between this year’s teams.

“They’ve got a lot of guys back from last year and they’re expected to win a lot of games this year,” Griffin said. “We’re kind of in the same situation. We’ve got a lot of guys back. We’ve got a new quarterback we’re trying to break in. Right now, I think it’s pretty much apples and apples.”

If there’s anyone who knows what Griffin will be feeling at kickoff tonight, it’s Kinsler. Like Griffin with the Falcons, Kinsler served as a longtime defensive coordinator for the Eagles before taking over as head coach prior to the 2010 season. Since then, he’s gone 23-2.

“I know Coach Griffin has been there and was there with Coach Shaw, and I know a lot of those same kids have been there and I think the kids at Flowery Branch are a lot like ours,” Kinsler said. “They come in expecting to win regardless of what’s going on, whether it’s turnover or whatever.”

Like the Falcons, the Eagles will also be introducing a new starting quarterback in tonight’s game. Converted tailback Glen Smith (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) will get the start, though Kinsler said Marcus Ivory, who has more experience at the position, may also see playing time.

Griffin said regardless of who’s taking the snaps, the objective for his team remains the same: stop the run.

“They do have a new quarterback, but one thing we’ve noticed from watching some film of previous years is they haven’t changed much,” Griffin said. “They’re still doing what they’ve always done. They’re going to establish the run, and continue that and throw the ball when they feel like they need to. This quarterback they’ve got is different than the guy they had last year. He’s probably a little better athlete, maybe not as good of a quarterback, but just a good athlete and he doesn’t make too many mistakes.”

Northside also returns running back Curtis Martin, who split time in the backfield last year, and Keshun Hill, an explosive receiver/return man who finished last season with more than 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards and three punt returns for touchdowns.

Curry said he played against Hill in a state junior game last December and called him a good athlete and “a really good receiver.” How Hill matches up against the Flowery Branch secondary could be one of the game’s more intriguing match-ups, as the Falcons have Division-I prospects at cornerback (Curry and Noel Padmore) and return every starter in the secondary from last season.

As a whole, defense is expected to be the Falcons’ calling card.

“No doubt that’s our strength right now,” Griffin said. “Nothing against our offense or special teams, but defensively we bring back our entire secondary, most of our linebackers and several defensive linemen, so we feel like the core of our defense is back. And they’ve played a lot of football games the past few years and have done fairly well. So we’re real excited about that and extremely pleased at how they’ve played so far.”

The unit is led by Allen, who tallied more than 130 tackles last season. This fall he’ll be joined by Kris Smith (6-2, 196), a transfer from Greater Atlanta Christian who holds numerous Division-I scholarship offers.

Offensively, the Falcons have a lot of production to replace from last year’s group, which averaged 45 points per game during their run to the state quarterfinals, which ended in a 42-34 loss to Tucker.

And though they also lost their top two receivers and leading rusher from last season, the conversation at Flowery Branch always seems to start with the quarterback, a position that has yielded four consecutive signal callers who have signed with FBS colleges.

Junior Jackson McDonald takes the reins this season and Griffin likes what he’s seen so far.

“I’ve been very pleased,” Griffin said. “I’ve seen him grow and make good decisions and continue to mature pretty much daily ... But this Friday night, against a team like Northside, it’s going to definitely answer a lot of questions.”
Curry, who has focused on defense throughout his career, is expected to be one of McDonald’s top targets.

“Especially with Casey Osborne and my brother C.J. leaving, we lost two pretty good weapons from last year,” Curry said. “With Jamaad Stephens and Devonte King and Cameron Davis, a move-in, and Cris Dilidili, we have other options at receiver, but they said they wanted to get me on the offensive side of the ball this year.”

That deep group of receivers should get a stiff challenge from a Northside defense that returns seven starters after yielding only 10 points per game last fall.

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