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High school football: Gainesville hyped for Week 1 test against No. 6 Marist in Atlanta
Red Elephants loaded with talent for first-year coach Josh Niblett
Gainesville's Naim Cheeks (7) breaks free on a touchdown run against Winder-Barrow in the preseason game Aug. 12, 2022 at City Park Stadium. - photo by Bill Murphy

Every season opener is understandably cause for excitement for every high school football program this time of year.

However, Gainesville’s 2022 opener against sixth-ranked Marist on Friday night at Hughes Spalding Stadium has generated plenty of anticipation for a number of different reasons.

From the debut of a new era under first-year Red Elephants coach Josh Niblett and his staff, to a roster that has as much talent as any from the program in nearly a decade, to playing a high-profile opponent on the road, there is plenty for the Red Elephants and their fans to be excited about regarding Friday’s opener.

That is exactly the kind of vibe Niblett has wanted to instill in the Gainesville community, as well as his team, though he admits that he wants the latter to be tempered with a little focus and perspective.

“You want everybody to excited,” said Niblett, who won six Alabama state championships at Hoover (Alabama) before accepting the Gainesville job during the offseason, on Wednesday. “But at the same time, we’ve still got two more days before we play. So we don’t want to (waste) our preparation to where we get to game time and all of the sudden, we’re not prepared.

“That’s the thing I caution our kids (about). You can have emotion, but just don’t be emotional because when you get emotional, you don’t get to sleep at night and stress out about it. We just want them to relax and when the game rolls around, we’re relaxed and we’ll be ready to play.”

Based on talent, Gainesville should be ready to play in Friday’s opener.

Between holdovers from last year’s 4-6 squad and talented newcomers, the Red Elephants will be well-equipped to face another one of the state’s best programs.

Returning in 2022, Gainesville is led by senior running back Naim Cheeks, a fourth-year starter who ran for 1,000 yards a year ago and junior dual-threat quarterback Baxter Wright, who threw for more than 1,000 yards in 2021.

However, the newcomers will be what likely makes the Red Elephants a contender in Region 8-6A and on the state level.

Its newcomers are led by senior middle linebacker Jeremiah Telander, a Tennessee commit who posted 130 tackles at North Hall a year ago. 

At wide receiver, the Red Elephants have been bolstered with the addition of Darius Cannon, who had 900 receiving yards last season for White County, and Tre Reece, who rushed for more than 600 yards in 2021 for Jefferson. 

However, the biggest issue in Niblett’s mind could be more in the areas of discipline and maturity, particularly for the Gainesville defense.

Those two qualities have been featured prominently at Marist (10-2 last year) under Alan Chadwick, who enters his 38th season at the helm as No. 2 on Georgia’s all-time coaching wins list with 409, including three state titles, the most recent in 2020.

As much as winning has been a trademark for the program, another has been the War Eagles’ ground-based, triple-option attack that has baffled opposing defenses for decades.

This year’s team should be no exception with a number of quality runners moving out behind a line led by all-region offensive lineman O’Keefe McKinney.

And Niblett knows his team will have to be disciplined on defense to keep Marist from shortening the game with time-consuming drives, as well as on offense, which he says will need to maximize its own possessions.

“It’s just a little bit different opponent as far as what you’re facing,” Niblett said of Marist. “It’s had to be a little different as far as prep goes because they’re so different on offense. They’re going to be disciplined. They’re going to play smart. They’re not going to beat themselves. They’re very opportunistic.

“So for us, we’ve got to play fundamental football and match that. Everybody’s got an assignment, and if we don’t do our assignments, it’s going to be a long night. If we do our assignments, we give ourselves a chance to be in it. I think that’s what’s important.”

As formidable as the task will be for the Red Elephants right off the bat for the 2022 season, it’s just the kind of game he says he’s come to get the Gainesville program used to again.

“I’ll tell you what. As long as I’m here, we’re going try to play the best opponents we can play,” Niblett said. “That’s only going to give us every opportunity to figure out who we are and what we need to become. We’re not chasing anybody. We’re trying to set a standard for what we’re doing here. In order to check our standard of being the best, we’ve got to play the best. So it’s a great evaluation for us.”

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