The office of Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller is littered with past accomplishments and accolades. Plaques and game balls display the achievements of his 35-year coaching career. But there is one glaring omission from all the mementos: A state championship trophy.
"To win a state championship you have to be extremely lucky and extremely talented," Miller said. "And you have to hope it all comes together at the right time. I’m not sure which is more important, being lucky or being talented," he added. "Talent will get you there, but you have to have some things go your way."
At Gainesville in 2008, there’s plenty of talent, and Miller knows it. But he’s unsure of what that talent can produce.
"You can look good on paper, but you still have to win," he said.
Winning is not a luxury at the tradition-rich high school, it’s an expectation.
"Being here, the expectations are high, and they’re high every year," Miller said.
With a talented nucleus of seniors and a junior class full of playmakers, the Red Elephants may exceed all expectations this year, but Miller knows that the team must play fundamentally sound football in order to make a return trip to the playoffs.
"We’ve got to play better defense and not turn the ball over on offense," he said. "That’s the key for us this year."
To say that the Red Elephants lost some offense when last year’s seniors graduated would be an understatement.
Their starting quarterback Justin Fordham and his 3,267 yards and 34 touchdowns are gone. So are top receivers Gerald Ford and Tyler Adetona, who were on the receiving end of many of those Fordham passes.
Also missing from the Red Elephants this year is running back Kendrick Harris and the 985 yards and 11 touchdowns he provided in 2007.
While the offensive weapons from 2007 are no longer at Gainesville, the players responsible for the productive season are. The entire offensive line returns for the Red Elephants, and with the athletes that have joined the team for 2008, Gainesville appears ready to remain an offensive juggernaut.
"I look at our team and wonder what our weak spot is on offense," Miller said. "We’ve got speed all across the field. We have very good skill people, and if we keep them healthy and get them confidence, we’ll be in good shape."
Leading those skill position players is junior quarterback Blake Sims, who transferred to Gainesville in January after throwing for 1,036 yards and nine touchdowns at Cass High last year. Joining Sims are a host of talented athletes like wide receivers T.J. Jones, Juwon Jeffries and running backs Robert Humphrey and Teryan Rucker.
"With our skill people, if you miss a tackle, they may end up standing in the end zone," Miller said.
While their offense is filled with talented juniors, the Red Elephants defense is loaded with experienced seniors.
Defensive linemen Josh Jackson, Chris Randolph and Shammond Stringer, and linebackers Phillip Gaines and Brock Boleman are all back for their senior year and ready to anchor the Gainesville defense.
Fellow seniors Xavier Ervin and Humphrey will be joined in the secondary by junior Tevin Yarbrough, who played in all 11 games as a sophomore.
"Our defense is going to be solid this year," Miller said. "They’re all fast, and they all get after the ball."
The Red Elephants will have to use that speed in order to cut down the 25.2 points per game that they surrendered in 2007.
Offensive weapons? Check. Defensive stability? Check? Reliable special teams? Not quite.
"Special teams is a little iffy for us," Miller admitted. "Our kicking situation is unstable. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have right now."
Miller was so concerned that he scoured soccer practices in search of a kicker. Three soccer players are battling for the place kicking duties, but with no experienced kicker on the roster, Miller says he’s worried.
"At some point our offense is going to get stopped," he said. "It could be really scary at first, but I hope it’s not going to be."
Special teams issues aside, all signs point to the Red Elephants repeating as a playoff team in 2008. The offensive skill players have yet to play a game together, but if their abilities are as good as advertised, then Gainesville will score points with ease. Putting up a massive number of points will force opposing teams to try and match Gainesville point for point, which could lead to many turnovers for an opportunistic defense.
The first four games of the year will be tough with a home game against White County sandwiched in between away games at Chestatee, Franklin County and North Hall, but if the Red Elephants survive that test, they will be well on their way to the playoffs.
"If we win can come out of those four games 4-0, then I think we’ll be for real," Miller said.