Each week, the football coaching staff at Flowery Branch High prefers to maximize the level of stress at practice to better prepare its players for the big stage on Friday nights.
That approach materialized last Friday night.
In the midst of a spirited second-half comeback from a scrappy Class 6A Gainesville High (0-5) squad, the moment was not too big for the fifth-ranked Falcons — and especially for one Connor Mayfield.
With the game on the line, the junior middle linebacker for Flowery Branch hauled in a third-quarter interception, and later brought down Red Elephants quarterback Walt Dixon in the backfield on fourth down with 7:36 left to play, thus berthing the game-clinching touchdown drive for the Falcons in a 28-19 victory at City Park Stadium.
For those reasons, Mayfield is the Times football Player of The Week.
“(Connor) is a true pleasure to coach,” said Falcons second-year coach Ben Hall.
“In our defensive scheme, he makes sure that we’re aligned properly, and he’s right there in the middle of everything. He performed well Friday.”
Aside from his 12 tackles, Mayfield added 25 snaps on offense at H-back for unbeaten Flowery Branch (4-0), which enters Region 7-4A play this week with even more confidence. Still, Mayfield’s interception and first sack of the season were the clutch plays the Falcons needed to disrupt a furious Red Elephants rally — sparked by a Quintavious Hayes 50-yard run on the second play of the third quarter — that shrunk the Falcons’ 15-point halftime lead down to 2.
On a third-and-long at 21-19 in the third period, a pass deflected off a Gainesville receiver’s chest down field, and as the ball hung in the air, Mayfield made a diving grab that preserved a narrow Flowery Branch lead. His final takedown of Dixon in the backfield with minutes remaining brought the Red Elephants’ charge to a grinding halt.
“They were definitely trying to go deep,” Mayfield said of the sack on fourth and long.
“We had our defensive line trying to get a pass rush. I dropped back and didn’t see (receivers) across the middle, and I saw the quarterback looking to run. So I thought I’d pursue him.”
The outcome was a turnover on downs, giving Hall’s offense an opportunity to do what they do best. The Falcons slowly milked the clock with a 14-play drive capped off by a Jaizen Ellingham (144 yards, two touchdowns) 4-yard touchdown run that ultimately put the game to rest with 25 seconds left.
While Mayfield felt it wasn’t their best performance, he described the win as an emotional one for Flowery Branch’s seniors, as the Falcons lost a nail biter to Gainesville in the previous clash three seasons ago.
“Emotions were still flaring for us,” he added. “It meant a lot for me to help the seniors get that win for them.”
At 6-feet-1 and 215 pounds, Mayfield has a reputation as a tough competitor in his coach’s presence. Hall said Mayfield grew mentally and physically in the offseason, packing an extra 20 pounds to earn a starting spot in the Falcons linebacking corps. After witnessing the success of Flowery Branch’s previous graduating class last season, Mayfield knew he had an opportunity to fill one of the few vacant leadership roles on the team.
The first-year starter lives to put in the work, according to Hall.
“It’s fun to watch a kid grow up,” Hall said of Mayfield. “He’s a weightroom guy that takes pride in developing physically, and it’s paying off.”
Since missing the season opener to an injury, it appears Mayfield is now back to full strength, ready for more as Flowery Branch opens region play against White County at 7:30 p.m. this Friday night in Cleveland.
You can count on Mayfield crashing the weightroom this week.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to being better than your opponent in any way you can,” Mayfield said. “If you can be stronger than the opponent, that’s certainly going to help you on the field.”