No one could forget the quarterbacks who came before Mikey Gonzalez at Gainesville High.
But more importantly for the Red Elephants this season, their senior signal-caller realized being himself was more important than trying to fill someone else’s shoes.
Following on the heels of Clemson freshman starter Deshaun Watson’s four seasons as Gainesville quarterback and two years prior to that Alabama fifth-year senior starter Blake Sims manned the same position, Gonzalez has put his own mark on the Gainesville offense this season.
He helped the Red Elephants (8-2) secure the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAAA, and Gainesville will host Creekview in a first-round playoff matchup at 7:30 p.m. Friday at City Park Stadium.
The Red Elephants senior spent his first three years on varsity watching Watson in action and regularly coming in late in lopsided contests. He threw for 686 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception as the backup quarterback in 2013.
“I was able to learn what it takes to be a great quarterback like he was and just his work ethic and how he took practice and how he lived his everyday life without it revolving around football,” Gonzalez said.
Watching and backing up Watson wasn’t the only thing Gonzalez did during those three seasons. He attended daily meetings in-season with Watson and quarterbacks coach Michael Perry and even some offseason sessions where they talked about how to attack defenses. Gonzalez said the learning that came from those meetings was invaluable.
Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller said that approach is a major reason Gonzalez has completed 70.9 percent of his passes this season for 2,454 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His one rushing touchdown gives him 30 total scores for the season.
“A lot of learning had already taken place those three years,” Miller said. “When it became his turn, he just applied it to this year. And look what’s happened.”
While that experience was crucial, Miller said Gonzalez still wants to learn and is excelling because of his knowledge of the offense. He’s done it all while not worrying too much about trying to follow Watson and Sims.
“He’s just kind of said, ‘Hey, I’m Mikey Gonzalez. I’m 5-foot-8, I’m 160, 165 pounds. But I’m going to do the job, I’m going to study, I’m going to do the things I need to do,’” Miller said. “He’s been a great leader for this football team.”
Rodney Lackey, a senior wide receiver with 46 receptions for 561 yards and a team-high 10 receiving touchdowns, said Gonzalez’s consistent hard work pays off on Friday nights. Lackey sees a quarterback getting better every day.
“He’s been doing a great job this year,” Lackey said. “He’s been handling the pressure pretty well. He hasn’t lost his cool. He’s always stayed calm no matter what the situation has been.”
Lackey, Messiah Dorsey (51 receptions, 698 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Chris Williamson (35 receptions, 669 yards, 8 touchdowns) are Gonzalez’s top targets. Gonzalez showed off some of his arm strength, which has also served him well in baseball, on a pair of touchdown throws to Williamson last Friday. But the senior is quick to spread the credit for the Red Elephants’ offensive success.
“That gives me all the confidence in the world just knowing that I can throw the ball 30 yards or I can just throw it five yards and they’re just going to make a big play,” Gonzalez said. “It makes me look really good. If my O-line gives me time as much as they did on Friday, I can throw it as far as I need to.”
Gonzalez said adjusting to game speed took some time after working in a backup role in previous seasons. But with 10 games as starter under his belt, it’s not new anymore.
“The more I play, the more reps I take at practice, it just gets easier and easier,” Gonzalez said.
The Gainesville senior is still regularly in touch with his predecessor, exchanging texts with Watson about opponents and wishing each other luck before Gonzalez takes the snaps for the Red Elephants and Watson for Clemson. With the Tigers playing on Thursday last week, Gonzalez got to spend time with Watson on Saturday. The state record holder for career passing yards, Watson wanted to know how the team is doing and get the lowdown on Creekview.
On the field, Gonzalez seeks to put into practice what he saw Watson do throughout his career en route to more than 17,000 yards of total offense.
“He kept a level head the whole game,” Gonzalez said. “He never got too high, never got too low. Say he threw an interception or he threw a touchdown, he had the same emotion, never let the game get bigger than what it was.
“And obviously he’s taken that to college, and that’s honestly why I think he’s doing so well.”
Gonzalez’s passing yardage is ahead of Sims’ 2,288 yards from his senior year and within reach of Sims’ 2,785 yards as a junior, though Sims was also one of the program’s top rushers during his career.
Gonzalez said his baseball skills as a shortstop and pitcher are transferable to the football field, whether it’s throwing from awkward positions or needing mobility. When it comes to what the next level holds for him, Gonzalez said he’s keeping all his options open. Whether it’s an offer to play football or baseball, he would embrace it. If it was a chance to do both in college, that would be ideal.
But Gonzalez still has some unfinished business at Gainesville. The state playoffs kick off Friday, giving him another chance to extend his lone season as starter for Gainesville.
All the while, he won’t be the guy trying to replace Deshaun Watson and Blake Sims. He’ll simply be Mikey Gonzalez.
“I was hoping for a good year, just praying and hoping for a good year,” Gonzalez said. “I never expected it to be this good going into the playoffs. It’s been really fun, and hopefully we’re not done yet.”