The mark of a good high school football program is one that consistently wins year-in and year-out. It challenges for subregion and region titles, flirts with undefeated seasons and sometimes finds itself on the verge of winning a state title. It does all this despite the fact the rosters change yearly, and superstars can be gone before you know it.
But as the stars leave, new ones arrive. Winning programs are consistent because the coaches combat the voids with different players featuring different styles in hopes of continued success, and most of the time those hopes turn in to reality.
If there’s ever been a time for a set of newcomers to Hall County it’s this year. In 2009, the high school football fields were riddled with Division-I talent playing on top-notch teams. Quarterbacks like Blake Sims and Connor Shaw set a new standard for the position in Hall County, and since both are playing for Alabama and South Carolina, respectively, their absence creates a huge void to fill.
Wide receiver Tai-ler Jones, who is now playing at Notre Dame, had equally as large an impact for Gainesville, leading the team in catches and touchdown receptions both his junior and senior seasons. But the biggest newcomer at wide receiver isn’t playing for the Red Elephants, he’s playing at North Hall, a team known for its run-first style of offense.
The following are three newcomers who will have an immediate impact for their respective teams.
WR C.J. Curry, Jr., North Hall: It’s been a while since the fans at The Brickyard have seen a wide receiver of Curry’s caliber wearing the green and white. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound wide receiver came to North Hall along with his brother Darius when their father was hired onto the coaching staff. Prior to now, the Currys played at Loganville, a team that throws the ball more than North Hall. Or is change coming?
“We’re gonna throw the football more and I don’t think that’s a secret,” coach Bob Christmas said.
Although the Trojans have a slew of talented receivers, Curry will undoubtedly be the focus in the passing game.
“C.J.’s a special talent,” Christmas said. “He’s a very physical kid, and after he catches it, you gotta tackle him because he’ll bounce right off of you.”
That ability, plus having “good speed, great hands” and running great routes, has made Curry appealing to college programs, specifically Georgia, which offered him a scholarship. Regardless of where he goes to college, Curry knows he’ll be leaving North Hall a better player.
“More than anything, it’s teaching me to be more of a team player and that the ball isn’t coming to me all the time,” Curry said. “I know I have other responsibilities like blocking for my running backs and opening spaces for them to run through.
“That’ll help because (colleges) can see me block as well as catch the ball.”
Curry had 65 receiving yards during one half of North Hall’s scrimmage against Forsyth Central, proving he’s already understanding the offense and building a solid relationship with quarterback Kanler Coker.
“Our relationship is getting stronger every day and that’s one of my best friends on the team,” Curry said. “By the time the season comes, we should be all right.”
With Curry in the offense, the Trojans will be all right too.
QB Austin Brown, Sr., Flowery Branch: For the first time in six years, someone with a last name other than Shaw will be taking the snaps for the Falcons, and filling those shoes won’t be easy.
Luckily for Brown, who played the last three seasons at Habersham Central, neither he nor his coach want or expect that to happen.
“We’re still trying to find all the strengths of Austin,” coach Lee Shaw said. “Right now, Jaybo’s Jaybo, Connor’s Connor and Austin Brown is Austin Brown.”
While he admitted it was a “bit odd” not having one of his sons as the quarterback, Shaw knows his new signal caller will be able to continue the Falcons’ winning ways.
“He’s come in very confident,” Shaw said. “We talked about it; this is Austin Brown’s time.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Brown knows it too, and having his coach’s confidence only solidifies his reason for going to Flowery Branch.
“They’ve had great quarterbacks in the past that have gone on to college,” said Brown, who started for the Raiders for two years. “I came here because I wanted to be coached more than anything.”
Winning also played a role in the decision, and in order to do that, Brown has spent countless hours watching film of the man he’s replacing.
“I’ve been watching a lot of Connor and what he did,” Brown said. “Obviously, you can’t argue with his stats and what he did for this team. But I’m just gonna be me and do the best I can.”
His best is apparently pretty good.
“He still tries to find the ways to win and refuses to lose,” Shaw said of his new QB. “He has all the attributes that successful quarterbacks have.”
For the Falcons, who are playing in Region 8-AAAA this year, Brown’s best attribute might be his knowledge of the opposition.
“These guys don’t know what to expect, but I’ve played against these defenses for the past three years,” Brown said.
That prior knowledge should allow this newcomer to lead his team back to the playoffs.
QB Deshaun Watson, Fr., Gainesville: If filling the shoes of Connor Shaw is tough, replacing Blake Sims won’t be any easier. The Red Elephants starting QB for the last two years accounted for more than 3,000 yards of total offense and more than 40 touchdowns in leading Gainesville to the Class AAA championship game. Now try doing that as a freshman.
That’s what could be expected from Watson, a 6-1, 170-pound freshman who could be named the starter Wednesday.
Watson has been splitting time with Stephen Mason at quarterback, and the two could split time during the season.
Watson would be the first freshman to start at quarterback in coach Bruce Miller’s 36-year coaching career.
“The fact that he’s had two years of the offense at the middle school level has really helped,” Miller said. “Tyler Perry, the middle school coach, and Sam Wallace did a great job with him. He knows the basic stuff, so it’s not like we’re trying to teach him something new.”
One thing Miller won’t teach him is being like Sims. At least not yet anyway.
“Blake was such a freelance person,” Miller said. “When a play broke down, Blake could make it look like a million dollars. We’re trying to keep these guys in a contained offense.”
That doesn’t mean Watson can’t make plays like Sims — he may eventually — he just knows that’s a huge task for a freshman quarterback.
“It’s a big role to follow him and fill in his spots and do what he did,” Watson said. “It’s exciting and I’m blessed to have the ability to play the way I do.”
Watson said he’s spent countless hours watching film of Sims, and has taken notes on how he ran, knew when to cut and how to not make bad decisions.
“I’m intelligent in the game, I’m hard-working and tough,” Watson said when asked to describe his game. “After every hit, I get up. I think I can do anything people think.”
That’s why Miller is on the fence about naming a starter. Watson’s confidence certainly does not appear to be one from a freshman.
“I would be comfortable with him and knowing the things he’s been through, ” Miller said when asked about having a freshman quarterback. “He’s went to the West Georgia camp, has played in several passing leagues and has had success.”
If Watson is named the starter — and if he’s not, he’ll probably play some wide receiver — that will only boost his confidence.
“That’ll show that coach has a lot of confidence in me, believes in me and thinks I can lead this team to the playoffs,” Watson said.
From what he’s shown so far in the offseason, Watson is certainly capable of doing just that.