When Gainesville head coach Heath Webb first told sophomore quarterback Gionni Williams he would be starting ahead of the Red Elephant’s first region game of the season against Dacula, Williams did not react in a way Webb has come to expect from high school athletes. He didn’t show signs of nerves or excitement, rather dealing with the promotion from the backup position in his usual, stoic way.
“He just said ‘Yes sir. Let’s go win,’ and that was it,” Webb said. “He doesn’t get too charged up. He doesn’t get too down. He’s just a real even keel kind of guy.”
It’s that type of levelheadedness that has served Williams well in his budding career at Gainesville, culminating in the large role he played last Friday against Winder-Barrow in a 20-7 win. Williams completed 8 of 12 passing attempts for 67 yards and a passing touchdown and ran 20 times for 87 more yards and a rushing score against the Bulldoggs.
But more importantly, he led the Red Elephants (1-7, 1-2 Region 8-6A) to their first win of the season, making him this week’s Times Player of the Week.
“I felt good about the win,” Williams said. “But I feel like I could have done better.”
Williams started the year on Gainesville’s junior varsity squad, where his play was good enough to catch Webb’s eye after the first few games of the season. After the Red Elephants lost five-straight out the gates, Webb said he needed to bring in a spark plug to help pull the team out of its rut.
He had a hunch that Williams might be the answer.
“We just saw that he had a knack for making plays,” Webb said. “He can do some great things with his feet when plays break down, and so we felt like if we gave him some designed quarterback runs it could be very good for us. And in addition to that, he threw the ball well during those JV games as well. It just felt like his mobility would give us something that we needed, kind of jumpstart the offense.”
It was a strategy that has worked well for Webb’s team so far.
After an adjustment game in Williams’ first start against Region 8-6A leader Dacula, Gainesville got going against Habersham Central, scoring the most points in a game all season in a 32-49 loss. One week later, the Red Elephants picked up their first win against Winder-Barrow.
Over the course of the three games, Webb said Williams has gained the respect of his teammates, despite being less than a month removed from playing solely for the JV squad. Williams is not the most vocal leader, according to Webb, but his work ethic on the practice field has impressed — even among upperclassmen.
“He’s a great worker,” Webb said. “He’s really more of a lead by example kind of guy… He’s not the kind of guy to stand up in front of the team and give a speech. That’s not his personality. But he’s more than willing to speak to his teammates in a one-on-one kind of situation and just leads by example by just working hard on a daily basis.”
That hard work paid off for Williams in a big way on Friday.
Despite failing to lead Gainesville to a scoring drive in any of the first three quarters, Williams kept his composure, never getting down on himself or his team. When an interception from teammate Rassie Littlejohn set Williams and the Red Elephant offense up in plus territory to start the final frame, he did not waste the opportunity.
After a 13-yard pass from Williams to Justice Johnson set the team up on the 5-yard line, Williams took a quarterback draw the rest of the way to the end zone, scoring the first points of the game and putting Gainesville up 7-0.
“It was the fourth quarter, and we really needed something,” Williams said. “So I had to score real quick.”
Later in the quarter, after a Winder-Barrow touchdown cut Gainesville’s lead to 13-7, Williams came through in a big way once again. Following a 52-yard rush from Quintavious Hayes, Williams hit Lenny Chatman on a perfectly thrown, 25-yard score to ice the game.
Rather than panicking when Winder-Barrow threatened, Williams stayed his usual, even keel self, a quality Webb was not surprised to see his young quarterback exhibit.
“Nothing seems to rattle him,” Webb said. “And even when he makes great plays, he’s able to move on quickly and just play the next series. And so I think that level of just levelheadedness makes him a guy that you feel comfortable playing.”