It has become abundantly clear that after one season, Ben Hall has restored the winning culture at Flowery Branch.
The resurgent Falcons, after going 3-7 the previous year, compiled a nine-win 2017 campaign with a runner-up finish in the Region 8-5A and reached the second round of the state playoffs. And despite graduating a bulk of that playoff unit in conjunction with losing at least 30 roster spots to first-year Hall County school Cherokee Bluff, Hall sees a team hungry for more.
“This group has grown since the end of last season,” said Hall, in his second season as the Falcons head coach. “We had a lot of people in the community that were really happy, and almost satisfied with where we finished — the second-round finish. This group, they want to turn it up a notch and do a little more.”
Hall has been particularly impressed with his kids’ ability to hone their focus on the controllables. The addition of Cherokee Bluff in the Hall County school system not only affected future numbers on a varsity football roster, but it also relocated the high school to a brand-new location while bumping it down to the 4A classification. The circumstance was like jumping out of a frying pan and into the fire, Hall described.
The move is essentially a hop from one top-heavy region to the next. After competing against state perennial power Buford in 8-5A, the Falcons now inhabit the 7-4A that includes last year’s state champion Blessed Trinity and 4A runner-up Marist.
Encounters with Hall County neighbors West Hall and Chestatee, along with another first-year program Denmark in Forsyth, add to the challenge.
“You look at the teams we’re going to be competing with, and it’s a great opportunity for them and our team,” Hall said. “It’ll be a great measuring stick for us, in the 4A. ...We’re looking forward to the consistency on a daily basis.”
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Hall acknowledged the departure of a stat-heavy batch of playmakers, but his fixation always lies with the ones responsible for that production: The guys up front.
Last season, Hall’s Falcons garnered a reputation for controlling the tempo through a successful run game. And having a senior presence along the offensive line — Bailey Ottaway, Dakota Little and Cannon Underwood — translated into 2,306 rushing yards (1,365 from running back Malik Damons) and 34 touchdowns in 2017.
Aside from occasionally shuffling in one or two cards to the deck in this personnel-driven scheme, Hall doesn’t plan to change the same M.O. that gave his previous program sustainable success at Jefferson: Control the line of scrimmage and protect the football.
“At the end of the day, we’re gonna do what we do. And we’re gonna hang our hats on what we do well — leaning on the line of scrimmage — to make that happen,” Hall said. “We’re not gonna allow the offense to beat us … we’re gonna play sound defensively, and then control the ball (on offense) … People ask me all the time, what do you run on offense? Well, we run the clock.”
The Falcons bring back the one in charge of orchestrating it all under center.
Elijah Gainey, with a more sizeable frame, reprises his role at quarterback for the Falcons in 2018 after a breakout sophomore campaign. Last year, Gainey surprised many by showing his worth in Hall’s multiple scheme, completing 48 percent of his throws for 1,524 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions to complement a dangerous backfield once occupied by senior tandem of Damons and fleet-footed back Malik Drayton.
With that said, Hall has no trepidation about his junior signal caller.
Based on his actions, Gainey has earned the respect and trust of his teammates, according to Hall. And now at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Hall won’t have to worry about his quarterback occasionally moving the chains with his own two feet — though the coach still prefers to keep Gainey upright as often as possible.
“We feel like we can ask him to do more (this year),” Hall said of Gainey. “He’s got a little more of that quarterback swagger, moxie. He’s gotten bigger and stronger. If he can’t play quarterback for us, he can play tackle for sure. ...He’s done a great job in the offseason, he moves well. He’s what you look for as a pro-style quarterback.”
When Gainey is not loosening the box by throwing to returning deep threat Jalin Strown or up-and-comer DJ Brown, he’ll be handing it off to a number of ball carriers in a committee-run backfield. Zarian Brawner, sophomore Jaizen Ellingham and Chase Watson will all share the load for the Falcons run game.
The tight end spot will continue to be a big tool for Hall’s scheme, especially in the Falcons ability to mix in one or two extra personnel in the rushing attack. Senior Cody Inman, along with Mario Brown, Jack Dodson and C.J. Goodwin will all see reps at the position this season.
Senior Matthew Porter (left tackle) and junior Clayton Walczuk (right guard) provide a veteran presence along an offensive line that includes Tucker Rothschild and right tackle John Gunter.
A dominant senior presence was the glue to the stifling defense of Flowery Branch last season. When the Falcons weren’t dictating tempo on offense, their defense denied most opponents that option. Havoc-ridden, this 3-4 set racked up 69 stops for a loss — 26 coming as sacks — and boasted a top-10 ranking in points allowed with 14.6 a contest entering the second round of the Class 5A tourney. In the first round, Flowery Branch accentuated that reputation with a fourth-quarter, goal line stand in the waning seconds to preserve the victory over Kell.
In that game, the Falcons rattled off seven tackles for a loss and forced a pair of fumbles and two near interceptions. Most importantly, it snapped a three-year playoff drought.
But now, Flowery Branch must turn the page with the five starters they have coming back on defense.
Fortunately, Flowery Branch welcomes back at least one of the disrupters in the trenches, Inman, in his senior season. Inman, who piled up 55 tackles (three for loss) and three sacks in 2017, said the enthusiasm still lingers from last season and the team chemistry has never been stronger. The “field ironman” Inman should anchor the defensive line while contributing at H-back and tight end on offense.
“You know the person next to you is going to give it everything they have for the person next to them. I think that’s really cool to see that, especially with our defense this year,” Inman said. “I am ecstatic about our defense this year, as far as how hard everybody plays and how much we wanna win.”
Beside Inman, Dodson, Ethan Mckay, Chris Linkowski, Colby Brookshire and Aiden Lorenz will be jumping in-and-out of the rotation along the defensive line.
The Falcons are no longer without staples at linebacker — Tyler Blaylock, Cameron Cordell, Colby Adams and Will Price — but returning players Christopher Galloway, Connor Mayfield and Grant Lackey along with Christian Johnson should create a little chaos while sealing those gaps in the box this season.
Taylor Reeves, D.J. Brown, Connor Larson, Chase Dial-Watson, Chandler Dial-Watson and Jalin Strown will make up the Falcons’ secondary.
The Falcons will call upon two to replace the steady leg of Alexander Sanchez, who was 26 of 30 on extra points and made all five field goal attempts as a senior, in 2017. Depending on who wins the starting job, Jamal Larach and Maddux Trujillo should split place kicking duties. Gainey will take care of the punting duties.
With a winning culture still very-much intact, the future still looks bright for Flowery Branch. But if sharing the same region with the Class 4A’s defending champion and runner-up isn’t indication enough, the road ahead may be a little bumpy despite moving down a classification. However, the Falcons still have a handful of players that are battle tested, including their starting quarterback and a number of playmakers on the defensive side. If the Falcons manage to stay healthy, it could be fair to suspect at least a top-three finish in the 7-4A.