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Red Elephants met and surpassed expectations this season
Football program should challenge again next year in Class AAAAA
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller talks with the team after a practice before Gainesville’s upset win over Sandy Creek during the playoffs. - photo by Tom Reed

Progress turned out to be not such a slow process after all for Gainesville's football program in 2011.

After getting devoured in Week 1 by eventual Class AA state runner-up Buford (14-1), the Red Elephants (12-2) got right back off the mat and won 12 straight and played in the state semifinals in Class AAA for the second time in three season.

Along the way, Gainesville won its fourth straight region title and had sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson go on a tear on his own with more than 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing.

With a strong group of skill players at wide receiver, and defensive starters coming back in 2012, expectations will remain high for Gainesville next season, even with a jump up to Class AAAAA.

"It's so good to see where we came from at the start of the season to how we finished," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "It's a great tribute to all the assistant coaches on this staff and hard work of all the players."

Miller even slaps the label of overachievers on this year's Red Elephants squad, something's that's easy to understand after so many key players had to be replaced this season, none bigger than middle linebacker A.J. Johnson who this week was named a Freshman First Team All-SEC selection this year at the University of Tennessee.

Looking back, Miller says the biggest thing that Gainesville got out of this season was its 35-21 win against then No. 1 and back-to-back defending state champion Sandy Creek in the state quarterfinal round in Gainesville.

That win meant more for Miller in the big picture in the sense that it gave the program a defining victory. In the past, he felt like the program was a bit stuck in a pattern where it won games it was supposed to win and lose those it was expected to lose.

Maybe not anymore.

"When we beat Sandy Creek, people were so excited and the kids really thought they were going to win it all," Miller said.

In the Red Elephants' playoff run they topped a particularly challenging first-round opponent from Dalton, then a pesky Monroe-Albany in the second round.

After the defining victory against Sandy Creek, Gainesville fell short against Burke County last Friday in the state semifinals.

"I think Monroe-Albany had the best defense we faced all year," Miller said. "And Buford and Burke County were the best on offense."

Getting so close to a state championship left Miller feeling even a bit more of a resolve to pull home a state title in the future.

"We're still hungry," he said.

With Watson just a rising junior, Miller has a host of seniors for next year's team that will lead the way.

Wide receiver Caleb Hayman (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) came off the bench in the playoffs and scored a pair of touchdowns in both the Sandy Creek and Burke County games.

"I think that Caleb's really the next one to take off," Miller said.

Joining Hayman at wide receiver next season are Tray Harrison, Justin Cantrell and Lahius Leverette, all rising seniors.

Then on defense with safety Fred Payne, linebackers Devan Stringer and Michael Pittman, and Damian Grayson on the defensive line all coming back, it should remain in solid shape.

The only big question for Gainesville for the immediate future is the offensive line with Chase England, the starting center, the only player on its two-deep coming back next year.

Miller says the feeder system for Gainesville football is as strong as ever with an eighth grade program that's lost just one game in the past four years.


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