Flowery Branch entered the 2010 football season with a lot to prove to itself and its new competition.
A state semifinalist last year as a member of Region 7-AAA, the Falcons moved up to 8-AAAA and to play in the larger classification while missing every offensive statistical leader from 2009.
How these Falcons would respond to that adversity was a mystery, and as a result they found themselves outside the preseason top 10 rankings and having to prove their worth as competitors.
That wasn’t a position Falcons coach Lee Shaw minded his team being in.
“I thought it was great,” he said. “It rekindles that fire in you as a coach and even as a player. The fact that you have to go out and prove yourself to a totally new region. It was almost like we had moved. It was like you took over a new team without leaving, because everything was new. A lot of the players, certainly a different region, a lot of firsts — it definitely rekindled everyone.”
Thanks to first-year starters Austin Brown at quarterback, running back Jeremy Haley and receivers Casey Osborne and Logan Conley, the Falcons are not only competing at a high level, they’re making progam history.
The Falcons, in their ninth season in existence, are off to their first-ever 6-0 start.
Their offense remains the juggernaut it was last year, currently averaging 40.3 points a game — the defense is allowing just 9.5 points — and as a result, they’re currently the sixth-ranked team in AAAA.
Brown, a transfer from Habersham Central, is a big reason the Falcons offense hasn’t missed a beat from 2009, when it averaged 39.4 points a game.
He had some big shoes to fill heading into 2010 and is the first quarterback in six seasons with a last name other than Shaw. Connor Shaw started the past two seasons and Jaybo Shaw — now at Georgia Southern — the previous four. Both are sons of Lee Shaw.
Last season, Connor — now at South Carolina — completed 76 percent of his passes for 3,036 yards and 30 touchdowns.
“Naturally, I knew there was going to be some pressure on me from the community and everything,” said Brown who is 88-for-154 (57 percent) for 1,404 yards and 15 touchdowns to no interceptions.
“Everyone was expecting big things, so I just came in here and did the best I could do and that’s all I can do.”
Shaw said he’s becoming more comfortable in the spread offense.
“Austin has the ability to check us into anything he thinks is a better play and has full control if he wants it, Shaw said. “We feel confident if he sees a weakness he can attack it.”
Defenses can’t key in on one playmaker, because another will step in. Against defending 8-AAAA champion Apalachee on Sept. 10, it was Casey Osborne who had a big game, catching six passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns. Last week at Habersham Central, Logan Conley caught seven passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
Osborne said learning from last year’s leading receivers — Rodney Young (887 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Darius Kimbrough (614 receiving yards, three touchdowns) — prepared him to take on a bigger role this year.
“I mostly learned from Rodney,” Osborne said. “I talk to him all the time, even now. He tells me to keep going hard and keep doing what I’m supposed to.”
Conley said that while players like Young helped to serve as a mentor, this year’s receiving corps had to take on an identity of its own.
“We’re not as athletic as they were, but we’re fundamental,” he said. “We’re not raw athletes, so we have to stay focused.”
Though Brown has several receiving targets he can choose from, there is a constant in the run game and that’s Jeremy Haley. The feature back, he took over for last year’s leading rusher, Imani Cross, who rushed for 1,407 yards and 17 touchdowns last year. Cross is now at North Hall.
“I knew I had to come in here and work hard so it would pay off in the games,” said Haley, who 756 rushing yards on 113 carries and 11 touchdowns. “Everybody pretty much had my back because I did pretty good in some games last year, so my teammates were like, ‘You got this.’”
One player who isn’t new to the offense is lineman Brandon Keller. A senior and three-year starter, Keller has had four different line coaches and blocked for both Shaw brothers. He sees this year’s team as just as talented as previous successful teams.
“I knew we had some playmakers coming in, so this isn’t a surprise to me,” Keller said. “We just had to go out and make a name for ourselves. No one really thought we’d be this way. In AAA, everyone knew who we were, but no one in AAAA had respect for us so we had to go out and earn it.”
To this point in the season, the Falcons have responded to the challenge of creating a new identity in a new region and classifaction. Now the plan is to finish strong and make a playoff run.
But right now, the Falcons are focused on Friday’s opponent, Heritage.
“We’ve talked about how the next game is the biggest game and our kids buy into that because they know it’s true,” Shaw said. “Because with this region, we don’t know much about it. You really have to be on guard and can’t allow yourself to look too far down the road.
“But ultimately, we want a region championship and state championship.”