After reaching the state finals in 2008 and state semifinals in 2009, Flowery Branch enters the 2010 season with a bit of uncertainty after losing a slew of key players, including its starting quarterback and running back.
To compound the Falcons’ degree of difficulty to repeat success this season, they will move up a classification, jumping from AAA to AAAA.
Despite the challenges 2010 presents, Falcons coach Lee Shaw believes the team his team will compete at a high level.
“We’re going to do what we do and we’ve got the pieces to continue to have the same identity as in the past,” Shaw said. “Of course, time will tell and Friday nights will determine our exact identity, but I feel good about this group because we have experience.”
The Falcons enter the season without last year’s leading rusher, Imani Cross, and starting quarterback Connor Shaw. Cross transferred to North Hall and Connor Shaw, who is the son of Lee Shaw, graduated and is now a quarterback at the University of South Carolina.
In addition the Falcons must replace seven starters on offense.
In to replace Shaw at quarterback is Austin Brown, who transferred from Habersham Central, where he was a three-year starter.
Last season at Habersham Central, Brown completed 87 of his 176 passes (49.4-percent completion percentage) and threw for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns.
“This isn’t his first rodeo,” Shaw said of Brown. “He’s a veteran, and that gives us a lot of leadership on the offensive side of the ball.”
Brown, who has committed to Western Carolina, will be expected to execute the Falcons’ shotgun spread option offense. Shaw considers Brown a dual threat to run or pass. Another weapon in the back field is running back Jeremy Haley. A junior, Haley will take over for Cross as the featured back in Shaw’s one-back system.
“He was a backup last season, but I think he’s going to have a breakout year,” Shaw said. “He’s had a tremendous offseason and preseason. His work ethic is great and he has a nice vision and burst that’s ideal for the spread.”
When Brown isn’t running or handing off to Haley, he’ll be throwing to an entirely different receiving corps than last season’s. Senior Logan Conley, who caught 13 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown, is the Falcons’ only returning receiver who saw playing time.
Gone are the Falcons’ top three receivers — Rodney Young, Darius Kimbrough, and Robby Boudreau — all of whom are now playing in college. Conley will take on an expanded role, and Shaw is calling on senior TE/WR and team captain Byron Keith, junior slot receiver Brady Thomas, and “X” receiver Casey Osborn, also a junior.
With seven returning starters, Shaw said he feels good, about the unit.
He sees stability in the secondary with senior defensive backs Matt Tiller and Mykah Hester, who was the team’s second-leading tackler last year with 101. They’ll have to step up their play with the loss of Young, who led the team with three interceptions, and Rodriquez Frazier, who had two picks.
The linebacker corps will be anchored by juniors and second-year starters Quinncey Hodges and Sydney Cheeks and sophomore Jacob Allen, who saw playing time as a freshman.
Up front, defensive tackles and second-year starters Jonathan Frick, a junior, and senior Jeremiah Words, will anchor the line.
Punter Will Monday will replace Billy Thompson, who is now kicking for Jacksonville State, as placekicker. Monday, who is committed to Duke, averaged 42 yards per punt last season and was 3-for-6 in field goal attempts.
While it’s a tall order for the Falcons to match the success of the past two seasons with Clarke Central, Rockdale County and Apalachee now playing in the same Region 8-AAAA as them, a playoff spot is not out of the picture.