Class AAA state title game
Flowery Branch vs. Cairo
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Tickets: $15 at Flowery Branch; $20 at the Georgia Dome ticket office
Radio, TV: 550-AM, GPB Channel 8
FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch offensive line coach Ben Hall was probably a little apprehensive when he joined the Falcons coaching staff last spring. He could tell right off the bat it was going to be a priority to establish a group of five players up front to protect junior quarterback Connor Shaw and open up lanes for the running game.
Spring practice showed the former Furman assistant coach that the Falcons’ offensive line was going to be a work in progress. Three starters from the previous season were graduating. The best player coming back, senior right tackle and three-year starter Bucky Free, was still playing catcher for the Falcons’ baseball team.
"It was an eye-opening experience," Hall said. "We had a bunch of guys without a lot of game experience."
Hall decided his best chance to build a strong offensive group up front would be with smaller, quicker players that could move well in space and provide pass protection. It seems to have worked beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
The Flowery Branch (12-2) offensive line gets the credit from head coach Lee Shaw for keeping the team rolling, as it prepares for Saturday’s Class AAA state title game against Cairo (13-0) at the Georgia Dome.
"Those guys on the offensive line just play so hard for each other with a great sense of pride in what they’re doing," Shaw said. "The thing that helped was when coach Hall came here, and he’s just been a priceless addition."
Hall already had connections with Shaw before joining the staff. Hall’s father, Bill Hall, was Shaw’s high school coach his senior season at Rabun County. He spent time as a player, graduate assistant and then as a tight ends coach with the Paladins, before joining the high school ranks this season.
Having Hall join the staff filled a need on the coach staff. Then it was Hall’s job to fill the personnel needs on the offensive line.
The new line coach decided he’d fill the starting spots by looking at other positions on the field.
The first place he turned to was linebacker Jared Crandall. He had an eye on putting this senior in the critical left tackle spot. Crandall admits he wasn’t immediately sold on the idea.
"Coach Hall told me during the spring that ‘you’ll look good playing with your hand on the ground,’ but I wasn’t excited about the idea at first," Crandall said. "I thought offensive lineman were a bunch of fat, ugly people that never get any credit for anything.
"But it hit me that the team needed someone to step up, and this experience has really taught me to be humble."
Shaw was impressed that Crandall would put his personal preferences aside to do what was best for the team.
"Jared really accepted his role on this team," Shaw said. "And he’s really developed well into playing what is such a key position on the offensive line."
Senior right guard Ben Clark also had to move sides of the ball, but it wasn’t quite as drastic a move for this former defensive tackle. The other guard spot has been filled well by sophomore Brandon Keller, who played on junior varsity his freshman year.
Along with Free, center Austin Todd was the only returning player that played on the offensive line last year. Todd, a junior, is one of the young players on the offensive line that has Hall and Shaw excited about the future of the offensive line.
"Austin plays with tremendous effort," coach Shaw said.
"They work hard on the offensive line and it’s a close-knit group," Hall said.
And this group gets the job done despite not being particularly big by offensive line standards. Free (6-foot-1, 250 pounds) and Clark (5-11, 240) are the biggest of the Falcons linemen.
But they continue to work together for Flowery Branch in its search for a state title.
The group gets its satisfaction of a job well done through the stats that others put up for Flowery Branch. Lately, it’s been the tremendous efforts of senior running back Daniel Drummond, who has kept the Falcons roll through the state playoffs. The Georgia Tech verbal commit had a school record 258 yards against LaGrange last Friday in the state semifinals.
Last week, it was tremendous work on a trap play by Clark pulling from the guard position that freed Drummond for an 81-yard touchdown run against the Grangers in the state semifinals.
"That’s our reward when we do our job on a big play," Keller said.