BY BILL MURPHY
From time to time, Gainesville High football coach Bruce Miller has to remind his defensive unit to pump the brakes with the excessive contact in practice drills. He can chalk most of it up to youthful exuberance as the Red Elephants (4-5, 3-1 Region 8-6A) have a defensive unit that has meshed a largely untested group at the varsity level before 2017 with first-year coordinator Stan Luttrell’s tutelage. The combination has worked well for Gainesville as it can lock up a home playoff game with a win against Lanier (5-4, 2-2) on Friday at City Park Stadium.
“Our guys on defense are relentless,” said Miller, who has Gainesville in the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season.
Even though Miller and Luttrell have both been pleased with the defensive effort all season, it has really shown up on the scoreboard in back-to-back region wins against Winder-Barrow on Oct. 20 and Apalachee on Oct. 27. Against the Wildcats, Gainesville lineman Trever Calvert forced an early turnover as its defense allowed just 29 yards before substituting in backups for the rest of the game. In the win before that, the Red Elephants did an adequate job of limiting Bulldoggs quarterback Brock Landis and his big-play passing ability out of the shotgun formation.
The Red Elephants’ defense is especially young in the secondary. Among the six players that Luttrell uses at cornerback and safety, only Tyriq Kabir is a senior. Junior Rassie Littlejohn is athletic and consistent enough to play both secondary spots on defense. After that, there’s a bunch of sophomores, including safeties Chase and Chandler Watson, J.D. Brooks at cornerback and freshman Shad Dabney also at cornerback.
Luttrell said his young defense has been eager to adapt to his new system, which is predicated on presenting multiple defensive fronts to keep the opposing offense off-balanced.
“Our guys on defense are absorbing a lot of information,” said Luttrell. “They’re starting to grasp concepts we’re teaching them.”
“It’s all starting to come together,” said Kabir, who can play various spots in the secondary, as well as outside linebacker.
Miller is thrilled that his defense has made such great strides. However, he still might have to remind his hard-hitting defensive unit to show a little restraint on the practice field. Just a few weeks ago, Miller said one of his defensive linemen plowed through the line of scrimmage in 11-on-11 drills and put quarterback Tre’ Luttrell on his side, just as he finished recovering from a shoulder injury — a big no-no as the Red Elephants’ coach tries to always protect his quarterbacks from taking too many hits.
“He got through the line of scrimmage and decked him (the quarterback),” Miller said about the play. “Our guys on defense get just as excited for practice as they do games.”
Gainesville’s coach can justify some of the energy his players have for the game, since it’s just a product of wanting to get better.
Above the door to his office in the locker room, Miller has a sign outlining the four keys to winning in football. At the top of the list is ‘play great defense.’
“If you play great defense, you have a chance in any game,” said Miller.
Gainesville lost each of its first three meetings against Lanier from 2014-2016.
For the Red Elephants to earn the second seed to the postseason and home playoff game to open state on Nov. 10, they need a win against the Longhorns combined with a Dacula win against Winder-Barrow.
“We don’t want this game against Lanier to be our final home game,” said Kabir, who also plays wide receiver.