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Football: Gainesville QB Baxter Wright flourishing with new system, receivers
Junior coming off a 315-yard, 5 TD performance vs. Clarke Central
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Gainesville quarterback Baxter Wright scrambles against Clarke Central on Sept. 10, 2022 at City Park Stadium. Photo courtesy Kristi Davis-Wright

Having a starting quarterback with game experience is a luxury any head football coach taking over a new program would love to have coming in.

With Baxter Wright coming into this high school season with two years as a starter under his belt, that box was checked off for Josh Niblett when he was named Gainesville’s head coach in January.

And so far, the 6-foot-2, 163-pound junior signal caller has delivered for Niblett, his staff and the rest of the Red Elephants.

Having thrown for 827 yards thus far, Wright is already nearing his entire passing yards total from last year with the 2022 regular season just nearing its midpoint.

Add in nine touchdown passes against just two interceptions, a 71.4% completion rate and a 138.5 quarterback rating and he is a major reason for Gainesville’s first 4-0 start since 2009, which also includes a No. 6 ranking in Georgia High School Football Daily’s current Class 6A state poll.

But as easy as those numbers suggest Wright and his teammates have made the Red Elephants’ bounce back from last year’s 5-5 season look, it hasn’t come without a lot of major, and quick, adjustments.

For Wright, it’s meant adjusting to not only a dramatically different offensive system installed by Niblett and his brother, offensive coordinator Tad Niblett, it’s also meant getting to know several new receivers, like Niblett’s son Sky Niblett, incoming transfers Darius Cannon (from White County and Tre Reece (from Jefferson) and Trevian Watson, a Gainesville native who returned home this season after attending school and playing in Oakland, Calif.

And all those adjustments had to be made in a little over eight months, and he says he couldn’t have made those adjustments without a lot of help.

“I think the biggest thing is we’ve done it together,” Wright said. “Everything we’ve worked on starting a brand-new offense in January, having six months to get that down pat, everything that comes with that, it’s just everybody doing it together.

“We’re not anywhere near where I think we should be right now. We’ll get there. I know we will, but just the chemistry and everybody doing it together is really helping that out.”

As Niblett points out, Wright’s arithmetic is actually correct despite the fact that he is in his eighth month as Gainesville’s head coach.

With a lot of the first few months of his tenure devoted to the weight room and basic fundamentals, the time the Red Elephants had to fully dive into the weeds of the new quick-strike, aerial-dominated offense was a lot more condensed.

And Niblett is pleased with not only how well Wright – who is also a catcher for the Gainesville baseball team – has begun to pick up the offense, but also make physical improvement to help facilitate it, both of which are processes that requires a lot of hard work.

“I think the biggest thing is as a coach, it’s your job to try to put your players in as many good situations you can, and just try to teach them,” Niblett said. “It’s like, ‘What are the expectations as far as our offense goes? How does our offense flow?’ Because we are a different kind of offense.

“The thing is about Bax is, I think when the season finished off last year, he got banged up a little bit. So, I think he wanted to kind of change his body. He’s done a really good job of working hard in the offseason, not only in football, but (also) baseball to put on 15 to 20 pounds. … And Baxter’s a sponge, and he wants to learn as much as he can learn, whether it (means) staying after (practice) and watching extra tape or coming early to learn.”

The tape and throwing sessions have also helped Wright build both timing and chemistry all of the new receivers, and enhance both with those he’s already thrown to.

And with so many good options to choose from, he says such extra sessions with his receivers have helped him as much with his general field presence as it has with this grasp of the offense.

“I really do have a dude at every position on the field,” Wright said. “I trust those guys with my life, and I trust they’re going to be in the right spot every play. So, it really does make my job just so much easier. They’re always going to be in the right spot. They work hard. It really was a struggle getting used to that speed, but once we did, it really does make my job 100 times easier.”

All the extra work has been mutually beneficial to the receivers, whom all have different skill sets, from deep threats like Cannon and Watson to running back Naim Cheeks out of the backfield to reliable targets closer to the end zone like Reece and Sky Niblett.

And it’s hard to argue with the results so far.

“It was better for me because Baxter knows the game well, and he knows how to make the right reads. He sees the field well,” said Cannon, who has eight catches for 126 yards in three games this season. “It should help him a lot. He’s got everything he needs around him – all the resources, all the coaching and all that. He’s got everything he needs. All he’s got to do is get the ball in the right hands.”

While Wright has had to build chemistry with many of his new receivers, the bond he has with most of his offensive line was already in place.

Combined with that of several other returning teammates, particularly in the senior and junior classes, the old bonds and the new have helped Wright continue to grow into a team leader.

“Really, a lot more because these are guys I’ve played with my whole life,” Wright said of his comfort level with his leadership role. “This senior class is my guys that I’ve played with since I was 7 years old in little leagues. The chemistry I have with them is unmatched. We were never not around each other. We love each other, so just being able to talk to them like I was when I was 11, that really just takes it to another level.”

As proud of Wright as Josh Niblett is of his growth so far, he also knows there is more for him to do.

However, based on what he’s seen from his junior quarterback’s work ethic, he is very confident that his ceiling will only raise higher and higher throughout the remainder of his career at Gainesville.

“He’s a good player, and the thing is, he’ll continue to develop,” Niblett said. “He wants to develop. He’s chasing the best every day, so it’s not only on the field, but off the field, too. It’s being a great teammate, it’s being a great guy in the locker room, it’s being a guy who has got a lot of energy about him and a lot of effort. “I know how much it means to him to be a very good quarterback. … He wants to be the guy. He wants to make everything happen. He’s always working at it, and the improvement he’s made since I’ve been here is awesome, and I think I’m going to continue to see improvement because of his work ethic.”

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