Thursday night action for the Gainesville High football program is like a mini-season early in the summer.
But the Red Elephants won’t set foot on the beautiful sod at City Park Stadium for these games, and there will be more than two teams clamoring to get on the field.
This is summer passing camps.
Normally referred to as 7-on-7, the purpose is to give offensive skill players a chance to match wits against defensive coverages during the heat of the day and away from the pressure of wins and losses — at least, the kind that really matter.
The Red Elephants, fresh off a trip to the Class AAAAA state semifinals, opened summer passing league action with more than a dozen programs in Jefferson on June 5, and they return to Jefferson Memorial Stadium for the Georgia vs. South Carolina tournament in two weeks.
Sandwiched in between, Gainesville takes part in a national qualifier for the 7-on-7 circuit starting Thursday at Pirkle Park in Sugar Hill. An already busy stretch for Gainesville and coach Bruce Miller finally wraps up with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Day at the end of the month at Johnson.
“This time of year, we’re trying to find out who our playmakers are going to be,” Miller said.
For the Red Elephants, much of that focus is on the quarterback position, where rising senior Mikey Gonzalez will take over the role held the past four seasons by the state’s all-time leading passer, Deshaun Watson, who is now at gearing up for his freshman season at Clemson.
While Miller would be thrilled to still have Watson in the program, he says that Gonzalez has shown he’s more than ready to take over under center after playing steadily in a backup role his first three years of high school.
“Mikey’s getting a lot of reps and really doing a good job of reading the coverages,” said Miller. “I’ve been very impressed.”
At East Hall, the quarterback position is quite solid with the return of senior Devin Watson, who threw for 2,478 yards as a junior. Vikings coach Bryan Gray is eager to see the progress of his signal-caller, who is garnering attention at the next level from Georgia Tech, Air Force and Navy.
“It’s great to see the progress (Watson) makes,” said Gray, who will welcome Johnson, Chestatee, Union County and Banks County to the one-day NFL Player Development Camp on Monday at East Hall. “The amount of commitment he’s put in, and his football intelligence has really grown.”
As the names indicates, passing camps also give an equal opportunity to evaluate the wide receivers.
First-year Chestatee High coach Bill Forman will be balancing his priorities between instilling a more balanced run-pass offense, finding leaders on both sides of the ball and getting out to compete and, naturally, spike the excitement level for the players for the evening.
The passing camps are generally welcomed by the players to get a break from the weight room and conditioning drills, while coaches are more squarely focused on evaluating personnel.
“We’re trying to grow as a group and identify our leaders,” said Forman, who was promoted to head coach in April from the role of defensive coordinator. “We want to give all of our kids a chance to get out there and compete.”
Gainesville’s coach said the broader purpose of traveling to so many passing leagues is to have that portion of the offense installed and ready to go by month’s end, while holding on to some of the better secrets in the playbook for exposure on Fridays in the fall.
“What we do in passing camps certainly sets the tone for what happens in the passing game during the season,” Miller said.
With three players battling it out for the starting quarterback job, Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin is opting for a month more geared toward ‘friendlies’ with no scores or officials to add any undue pressure to the learning process.
The Falcons’ coach is also crafting his offense more toward a two-back set to compensate for not having as many wide receivers as the program has produced in past seasons.
“We want our players to get as many reps as possible during the summer,” Griffin said. “The kids are going to make mistakes, so we’re trying to slow it down a little bit and not make it so high intensity.”
At Jefferson, which hosts a pair of passing leagues, these camps are all about teaching the game and hammering out strategy.
The Dragons bring back rising senior Evan Shirreffs at quarterback. He received about ‘30-40 percent’ of the snaps in their last camp, while splitting the rest of the reps with his two backups.
“We’re not going to hang our hat on 7-on-7 camps, but it is good for working on the X’s and O’s,” Jefferson coach Ben Hall said.
“It’s also good to get the work on the perimeter.”