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High school football: Gainesville's Naim Cheeks taking success in stride after monster performance to open playoffs
Red Elephants senior running back collected 277 yards, two touchdowns in win against Sprayberry
Gainesville's Naim Cheeks scores against Sprayberry in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs Nov. 11, 2022 at City Park Stadium. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

When talking about his dynamic senior running back Naim Cheeks, Gainesville coach Josh Niblett made a unique comparison between the elusive speedster and the popular 1970s toy Stretch Armstrong, known for its gel-like insides that could be stretched and pulled but never disfigured.

Partly hyperbole, Niblett using it as a way to illustrate Cheek’s versatility and durability.

Cheeks can be hit, but doesn’t go to the ground easily.

He can stop on a dime, then accelerate and outrun speedy defensive backs.

And when defenders get hands on him, Cheeks can twist, turn and utilize his remarkable strength to pick up positive yards.

“The growth Naim’s made has been great,” Niblett said. “He’s taking on the responsibility of being a three-down back.”

While Cheeks had never heard of Stretch Armstrong before being told of the comparison, he appreciates the confidence his coach has in his ability to break off big runs and almost always pick up positive yardage.

“That’s special coming from the GOAT (Greatest of All Time),” Cheeks said.

Certainly Friday was the highlight of Cheeks’ four-year stint with the fourth-ranked Red Elephants (11-0) as he rushed for 277 yards and two long touchdowns in a 51-21 win against Sprayberry to open the Class 6A state playoffs.

Remarkably strong and durable for his 177-pound frame, Gainesville’s running back was at his best against the Yellow Jackets: often getting hit (sometimes by multiple defenders near the line of scrimmage), but still able to keep his balance and squirt through the pile.

Cheeks ran for a 47-yard score in the first quarter for Gainesville, then added a 59-yard touchdown before halftime.

“We’re extremely proud of him,” Niblett said. “He had a great week of work. He continues to get better and better with what we do in the run game.”

After his first big run, Cheeks said he knew it was going to be a special night. And a lot of the credit for his success, the running back said, goes to his offensive line which continued to create running lanes all night.

With the win, Gainesville is set up for a second-round game against South Paulding (8-3) on Friday at City Park Stadium.

For the season, Cheeks now stands at 1,305 yards and has 18 trips to the end zone, along with about 400 receiving yards, making him an intriguing prospect for Division-I programs.

And Cheeks plans to keep playing with the same vigor and scrappiness that was responsible for his career-best performance last week.

Gainesville’s leader in the backfield has a modest confidence that he can continue to help its offense move the chains, no matter the down and distance.

“If they’re not going to hold me and not get me to the ground, you have to get me to the ground. There’s no stopping. Keep moving until the whistle blows. If they don’t blow the whistle, keep going,” Cheeks said.

Another play of significance against Sprayberry for Cheeks, his coach said, was getting through a tight scrum at the line and picking up ‘20 or 25 yards’ on a third and long.

“There’s not many players who are getting out of that,” Niblett said.

One of Cheeks’ biggest progressions this season is his ability to get north and south without having to bounce around and rely on his elite speed.

Not only has a change in coaching helped his confidence, but continued production for the entire team at a high level as the Red Elephants earned their first playoff win since 2015.

“Coach has us here every day working out at 7 a.m.,” Cheeks said. “I’m way healthier.”

And success is contagious.

“I was here during the bad times and now we’re peaking,” Cheeks added. “The change is 360. There’s people doubting us, so we’re going to have to keep proving them wrong.”


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