Before he ever saw them play a game together, Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller said that Thomas Sprague, A.J. Johnson, Alberto Sanabria and Graham Simmons were the best group of linebackers he’s ever coached.
After 11 wins, including six shutouts, the 35-year coaching veteran hasn’t changed his mind about his linebacking corps.
“I feel the same way,” Miller said Monday after the top-ranked Red Elephants’ practice. “All four of them play as a team and as one unit working together.”
They work so well together because each one brings a unique skill to the field.
“We all play different, but we all play good together,” said Sprague, who leads the team with 140 tackles. “Our different styles makes us so good.”
So what are those styles?
According to Miller, Sanabria is the best open-field tackler he’s ever seen; Johnson brings a level of athleticism that allows him to rush and blitz; Sprague brings an overall toughness; and Simmons is what high school football is all about — giving 100 percent and always being where he needs to be.
The players have a simpler answer.
“We’re just a bunch of headhunters that want to lay people out,” Sprague said.
They certainly accomplish that goal.
The members of the linebacking corps are the four leading tacklers on the team. Sprague’s 140 lead the way, but nipping at his heels for the team lead is Johnson with 127. Simmons is third with 99 and Sanabria is fourth with 86 tackles.
Despite those numbers, the group often is overshadowed by the state’s highest scoring offense. That’s fine with them.
“The offense deserves all the credit they get,” Sprague said. “It doesn’t bother us.”
That’s because deep down they know that defense ultimately will lead them to the desired goal of competing for a state title.
“They say offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships,” Simmons said. “We keep that in the back of our minds, and it makes us want to work harder.”
That work has shown throughout the first 11 games of the year, as the defense has recorded a program-best six shutouts and is allowing just six points per game.
Not bad for a team that started the year with questions of the defensive side of the ball.
“We had guys step up,” Sanabria said. “We have three D-lineman that are great.”
According to Sprague, those three lineman — Thomas Niles, Kevin Hall and Taylor Stowe — are not the biggest, but they make up for the lack of size with speed and technique. And with a group of linebackers like they have playing behind them, the lineman are able to make plays without risk of failing.
“We kind of thrive on being the leaders of the defense and making the plays,” Sprague said. “Our whole defense makes plays, but it starts with us, and we send off a vibe that gets the whole defense in a craze.”
The vibe comes from Sprague, who was dubbed the hardest hitter by his linebacking peers, and Johnson, a laid-back guy who likes to get his team fired up before each game.
“I’m definitely the guy that gets everyone crunk,” Johnson said.
Yet while getting psyched before each game certainly has its advantages, this group says they wouldn’t be as good as they are without defensive coordinator Jim Pavao.
“Coach Pavao is probably one of the best defensive coaches I’ve ever seen,” Simmons said. “He has everything drawn out and tells us exactly what we need to do.”
Even when something goes awry, the defense is prepared.
“We’re known for swarming to the ball,” said Sanabria, who was dubbed the fastest of the four by his peers. “Even if we’re in the wrong formation, the other team is gonna have 11 guys coming after them.”
It’s that mentality that has Gainesville four wins away from a state championship, which has been the goal since the returning players left the field last year after a loss to Carver-Columbus in the third round.
“I remember the feeling,” Sanabria said of the loss. “It’s like I put it in a jar and locked it up. All the guys feel it, and we promised ourselves that we’re gonna go for it and work harder.
“We have the talent, the hard work, the coaches and the community to go all the way,” he added. “We have to do it for the Gainesville community and ourselves.”
The next step toward that goal comes Friday against Dunwoody (7-4). Although every member of the team should be applauded for getting the Red Elephants this far, Miller knows that this team wouldn’t be where it is without the stellar play of the linebackers.
“Everybody on defense should raise their hands and take accolades,” Miller said. “But it’s amazing to watch (the linebackers) hustle to the ball; it’s amazing to watch them care about each other and play hard.
“They’re just four great linebackers,” he added. “Not just only high school linebackers, but they could probably be great at the next level.”