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Top two passing teams go head-to-head Friday
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Shunquez Stephens throws a pass Tuesday during practice at West Hall High. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Separated by 121 yards and two touchdowns are two quarterbacks.

Those two quarterbacks happen to be at the helm of the most prolific offenses in Hall County.

West Hall’s Shunquez Stephens and Gainesville’s Blake Sims have, in some capacity, accounted for 23 of their team’s touchdowns, while passing for a combined 1,873 yards, and will lead their respective offenses in the first Region 7B-AAA game of the year tonight at Bobby Gruhn Field.

“Blake (Sims) can beat you with his feet (he’s got six rushing touchdowns) and he can beat you with his arm,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “I think for Shunquez (Stephens), he’s typically a drop-back style passer, but he’s got a strong arm, my goodness, I think I saw him pass it 60 yards in the air — just a strong arm.”

On the other end of Sims’ and Stephens’ passes are four of the area’s top five receivers. The Spartans’ (3-1) Rodney Gibson (445 yards and six touchdowns) and Terrell Penland (265 yards and three touchdowns), and Gainesville’s (4-0) T.J. Jones (320 yards and three touchdowns) and Teryan Rucker (226 yards and one touchdown) are reaping the benefits of quality passes.

“They’ve (West Hall) got four or five of the best athletes we’ve seen so far,” Miller said. “We’ve seen some good football teams, but I don’t think we’ve seen the athleticism that they’ve got.

“The thing that scares me about West Hall is they can score quick.”

“We know we can score on any play,” West Hall coach Mike Newton said. “We know that if there’s one minute to go in a game and we’re behind, we can get some quick scores by spreading people out and making people play in space.

“We do have some playmakers.”

Those said playmakers could reek havoc on a Gainesville secondary that has yet to be tested this year.

Having faced four run-first offenses (Chestatee, Franklin County, White County and North Hall) in the first four games of the season, the ability of the Red Elephants’ last line of defense to contain the Spartans’ wide receivers could be the difference in the game.

“Luckily, if it makes any difference, it’s basically our offense (that West Hall runs),” said Miller, “so our kids have been seeing it off and on all year.

“They just haven’t seen a lot of it the last four weeks, and that’s going to make a difference. We’ve seen some good football teams, but I don’t think we’ve seen the athleticism that they’ve got and our guys are going to have to adjust to that.”

Absent from Gainesville’s secondary will be junior Robert Humphrey who suffered a knee injury in last week’s 27-0 shutout of North Hall.

According to Miller, that will cause a couple of Gainesville’s wide receivers to have to play both ways.

Those playing in the secondary, or not, should matter little if Gainesville’s front seven does what it has all year — stifle opposing offenses.

The Red Elephants are, on average, giving up a field goal a game thanks in large part to the play of A.J. Johnson (58 tackles), Alberto Sanabria (47 tackles), Philip Gaines (45 tackles) and Josh Jackson (43 tackles and 5 sacks).
“The best pass defense is a pass rush,” Miller said, “and we’ve got to be able to get some pressure on (Stephens) because if he can sit back there (in the pocket), he can pick you apart.”

Newton is privy to that fact too and, therefore, spent the week working with his offensive line on protecting Stephens, and enhancing a Spartans’ run game that is led by Shunquez’s older brother Marquise (400 yards rushing and three touchdowns).

“We have to play a perfect game,” Newton said. “Defensively, they’ve got the best defense I’ve seen in Hall County so far.

“When you shut out two people like Chestatee and North Hall, that’s a big statement.”

An added advantage for the Red Elephants, aside from Sims’ and the defense’s stellar play, is the balance of the offense. A stark contrast from last year’s pass-first and, at times pass-only, offense.

Miller admittedly has six rushing plays in his offensive scheme, but they work, to the tune of eight rushing touchdowns on the season.

“Teams can’t just focus on the pass,” Miller said. “We like to spread out and make some things happen with the passing game.

“Basically, we take people out of the box and hopefully we can keep doing that.”

As if West Hall needed any other reason to want to beat Gainesville, the team’s series history provides added incentive.

Gainesville has won six straight meetings by an average of 37.5 points, with the Spartans only averaging a touchdown in those six contests.

“We’re excited (about playing Gainesville with a chance to win) but, you know, until you’ve done it, I don’t care who you are, you’ve still got it in the back of you head, ‘Are we capable of beating them?’,” Newton said. “And that’s what we’ve been harping on all week, that you have to believe in yourself and believe in your teammates.”

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