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A springtime return to the gridiron has coaches excited and scouts out
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High school football

Spring practice dates

Chestatee, May 4-15

East Hall, May 4-15

Flowery Branch, May 5-18

Gainesville, May 4-15

Johnson, May 4-15

Lakeview, May 4-15

North Hall, May 4-15

Riverside, May 11-19

West Hall, May 4-14

Football is back — for a couple of weeks, anyway — as numerous area high schools kicked off spring practices this week.

For high school coaches, spring practice is a chance to get to know the new personnel a little better and find replacements for graduated starters.

It’s just as important for college coaches, who are in the midst of their spring evaluation period and drop in at practices around the area to see and be seen.

In Flowery Branch, the Falcons, led by returning starter at quarterback Connor Shaw, worked out in full pads Tuesday. Coach Lee Shaw, Connor’s father, said the team had more than 100 players going through spring drills and that he’s happy about what he’s seen coming off the team’s trip to the state championship game last season.

"I love spring practice," said Lee Shaw, whose team should return 11 starters. "A lot of guys don’t like it, but I love the challenge. I love to see where we’re at and where we’ve got to get to.

"I’m real excited about what I’ve seen today and hopefully we’ll find a way to continue putting that puzzle together."

With Connor Shaw back at quarterback for his senior season, one of the biggest pieces to the Falcons’ 2009 puzzle may already be in place. Now a solidly built 200-pounder, he hardly resembles the skinny underclassman that spent his first two varsity seasons as a starting wide receiver, and he recently verbally committed to the University of South Carolina.

Sophomore running back Imani Cross (6-foot, 225 pounds) returns after rushing for 946 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman. Also returning are seniors Rodriquez Frazier and Rodney Young, who played big roles as receivers and defensive backs last fall. Frazier recently picked up a scholarship offer from the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

The Falcons’ most pressing need will be finding replacements up front. Three starters on the offensive line and all four starters on the defensive line have graduated. Brandon Keller, who has added quite a bit of good weight in the offsesason and Austin Todd are the returning starters on the offensive line.

Tuesday at Gainesville High, Tennessee’s Ed Oregeron, Notre Dame’s Jon Tenuta and Furman’s Steve Wilson (a Gainesville grad), drop by to check out the Red Elephants’ crop of prospects and chat with coaches.

More and more college coaches are popping up at spring practices these days, according to recruiting analyst Chad Simmons.

"Now days I think it’s a little bit different than it’s been in the past," Simmons said. "The biggest thing is everything is sped up more now. (The college coaches) are there to get a look at a lot of the underclassmen. And No. 2, they’re there just to build relationships with those high school coaches and talk with those guys and try to start that pipeline with certain schools."

There was plenty for the coaches to look at as the Red Elephants worked out in shorts and shoulder pads Tuesday.

"It’s pretty exciting," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "It’s amazing how much our kids have retained over the winter and it’s really fun to get back out there and go at it again."

The Red Elephants’ roster is littered with college prospects, including returning seniors Blake Sims, who is verbally committed to Alabama, and Tai-ler Jones, who is pledged to Stanford. Neither Sims or Jones, who will be competing in the state track meet this weekend, worked out in pads Tuesday, but both were on the field and took part in each drill.

Sims, who was named The Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year in Class AAA last season, passed for more than 2,400 yards and rushed for 822 in 2008. Jones was the leading receiver in the area with 81 catches, 979 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The pair has dominated headlines and recruiting Web sites in recent months, but they should have plenty of help as Gainesville aims to defend its Region 7-AAA crown.

Four starters are back on the offensive line, as are the team’s top two running backs — Teryan Rucker and Devon Pierce. Rising junior A.J. Johnson, who is picking up Division-I offers, and Alberto Sanabria are both back at linebacker, and the recent additions of linebacker Thomas Sprague and safety Daunte Carr should solidify the defense. Sprague led the area in tackles (173) last season at North Hall, and Carr helped Buford win its second consecutive state title in 2008.

Gainesville will conclude spring practices with its annual Red-White game, scheduled for 6 p.m. May 15 at City Park.

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