In the grand scheme of things, the Gainesville football program’s road to try to get back to the Class 6A state championship game for the 2023 season actually started with offseason workouts and conditioning that began not long after the team walked off the field following a 35-28 loss to Langston Hughes in the 2022 title game.
However, while the team’s spring practice, which concluded with a convincing 35-7 win over Alpharetta in the Red Elephants’ spring game Wednesday night at Alpharetta, was another relatively early step in the process, it was an important one.
For starters, with a full year under his belt as head coach at Gainesville, and with his returning players now fully schooled and invested in the program that is being built, Red Elephants coach Josh Niblett is quite pleased with how the latest step this spring has laid the groundwork for the next steps this summer.
“I think it’s all about caring for the culture,” Niblett said. “The big talk I had with our team (Wednesday) and our older players was, now they understand the expectations that I have. They understand the expectations of the program, what our culture is, what our standard is. Now they’ve got to be the one that continues to take it to a whole new level.
“We call it chasing best around here, so they’ve got to take full control. They’ve got to take the leadership role of that. I think our guys have done a really good job of that. (If) you’ve walked in our locker room, it demands a standard, it demands guys kind of having humility, it demands guys trying to be great teammates to the guys in that room. And you can see by how our guys play hard and play with great energy, and they love to play together.”
A lot of those qualities were on display during Wednesday’s spring game, which gave Gainesville fans in attendance a little bit of everything.
There was continued production from established veterans, with quarterback Baxter Wright, who is coming off a junior campaign in which he threw for 3,343 yards and 40 TDs, throwing for a pair of touchdowns to the leading returning receiver from last year, Travien Watson, and running for another score on offense and Carmelo Byrd and Cash O’Callaghan helping the Red Elephants to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and 28-0 by halftime.
There were also early indications that several young players who made early contributions on defense last year – like sophomores Julius Columbus and Brandon Bailey and freshmen Kadin Fossung and Marshall Leonard on the line could be taking their skills to an even higher level.
And of course, a lot of eyes were on some impressive newcomers to the program, like LSU-committed senior cornerback Zion Ferguson, Furman-committed running back Gavin Hall, Division I prospect safety Nick Taylor and freshman Mikel Stephen didn’t disappoint, which each giving a taste of what they’re capable of, including an interception and long return by Ferguson.
Overall, Niblett said he liked what he saw.
“We had a few guys out (Wednesday) night, so we gave some guys some opportunities to step up and make some plays,” Niblett said. “It was a great opportunity for our guys to do something different. For us, it’s about being physical having as many days … having great competition.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are new and our guys that are trying to get experience (who) we tried to put them in as many situations as we could. Then you want to kind of put all that together and go play a spring game against somebody different. That’s for the kids, but it’s also a great (opportunity) for me to evaluate our staff, evaluate our players and also let them know how the logistics of game day go. You can learn a lot from it.”
Niblett said that the Red Elephants, players and coaches alike, will now take a big of a break to recharge their batteries physically and mentally before jumping back into several different 7-on-7 competitions and padded camps throughout June and July in advance of preseason practice leading into the 2023 season opener against Marist on Aug. 25 at City Park Stadium.
“We’re going to give the kids a couple weeks off,” Niblett said. “We’ll all get away for a little bit and come back the week after Memorial (Day) week and get back into it.”