By Nathan Berg
For the first time in nearly two decades, Gainesville will have a new leader, and first-year head coach Heath Webb has some big shoes to fill.
Webb takes over the Gainesville football team from Bruce Miller, who coached the Red Elephants to 16 straight playoff appearances including a state championship in 2012. Yet despite the daunting circumstances of Webb’s task, he remains unintimidated.
“I don’t really feel like there’s any added pressure following in the footsteps of Bruce,” he said. “I just hope at the end of my tenure here that I’m as well respected as he is. But other than that, I’m just trying to do the best job I can do.”
Along with a new coach, Gainesville will be starting almost entirely new players. Webb said he’s only getting back three starters on each side of the ball, and many of those starters will be moved to new positions.
Choosing and breaking in a new quarterback before the Red Elephants enter their crucial region schedule will be a challenge, as will finding the best options to fill out an inexperienced secondary.
And while Webb has only had since February to get to know his players and their respective skill sets, he said the talent and athleticism he’s seen so far have been encouraging, giving him the impression that his new team is ready to succeed immediately.
“My hope is that the buy-in plus the athleticism will overcome the inexperience,” Webb said.
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Like Miller before him, Webb will employ a spread offense at Gainesville, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Red Elephants will lean pass heavy.
“People try to put the spread label as all inclusive, like every spread offense is this, and that’s far from the truth,” Webb said.
Instead of the typical aerial assault most associate with the spread, Webb said his team will go with more of a power running approach. Still, finding a long-term solution at quarterback will be at the top of a long list of to-dos for Webb in the early part of the season.
The Red Elephants will have a three-way competition for starting signal caller between dual-threat options Walt Dixon and Gionni Williams and pocket passer Tristan Lyon. Webb also said he may opt for a two or even potentially three quarterback rotation during the season, putting in a different player based on each respective situation.
Running back will be one of Gainesville’s biggest strengths this season, according to Webb, with Montavious Tabor, JD Brooks, Quintavious Hayes, Dez Brown and Ken Hester all slated to receive carries coming out of the backfield.
“I could put their names in a hat and draw one of them out to be the starters and I would be ok with it,” Webb said of the group.
The offensive line will be anchored by future college level athletes, with senior left tackle Damon Mixon, who is committed to North Alabama, and junior right tackle Jordan Williams who is receiving interest from several bigger college programs. Converted defensive lineman and team leader Carlos Loredo will shore up the middle of the line at center.
Webb said the Gainesville defense will not see a whole lot of change schematically despite the coaching switch. The Red Elephants will still base out of a 3-4 and try to bring plenty of pressure.
The defensive line should be the strength of the defense, as returning starters AJ Toliver will once again be playing nose guard. Makius Scott returns at defensive end. Webb said those two players will be the glue that holds a largely inexperienced defense together.
“Both those guys have embraced leadership roles, and they’re not shying away from it,” he added.
At linebacker, Webb said Isaac Robinson, Quintavious Hayes, Zymere Dukes and Ques Borders all have the requisite athleticism to stop the run or drop back into coverage.
Things get hazier in the secondary, where lack of experience makes the group perhaps the biggest question mark on the entire team.
“Athletically they’re very good,” Webb said. “They just don’t have a great deal of experience yet.”
The Red Elephants’ kicking units will feature several new faces, as according to Webb, “every kick and every punt in a varsity game for us this year will be first-time starters.” Jhaischion King and Jimmy Mai will compete for the kicking spot, while Lyon, who is also vying for the starting quarterback position, is likely to take over at punter.
Demarquez Brown is the most likely candidate to return punts, due mainly to the sureness of his hands, but there will be an open competition for kick returner. Webb said the plan is “to see if somebody sticks out,” in the team’s first few games.
Inexperience meets athleticism on a Gainesville squad that will be riddled with brand new starters. Webb said he’s still unsure of who will be filling many important positions on the team.
But the pressure is on, as a 16-year streak of playoff appearances is on the line. Webb said the plan is to work out the kinks in the opening weeks of the season so the team is at its best by the start of the regional schedule.
“I want to get better each week until we hit region play,” he said. “Then it obviously turns into got to win then.”