Gainesville has made things look pretty easy in the regular season as winners of three straight region titles and taking only one regular-season loss in that time.
However, this season presents a new challenge if the Red Elephants hope to stay on top and earn the coveted No. 1 seed in the playoffs from Region 8-AAA.
Gainesville lost a handful of star players who graduated from the 2010 program including Division-I signees A.J. Johnson and Thomas Niles, both on defense. However, replacing players from year to year is one of the unique challenges of coaching that keeps Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller on his toes.
He knows well that Gainesville's fan base is a demanding bunch that expects nothing less than excellence. And year after year, Miller has delivered by taking the program to the playoffs each season since he arrived in 2002.
"I wouldn't want to coach at a place where the expectations weren't high," Miller said.
Fortunately, the cupboard isn't bare of talent.
Gainesville has a versatile sophomore quarterback, Deshaun Watson, who's already collecting Division-I scholarship offers, and some dependable depth at running back and wide receiver. Most of the Red Elephants' questions this season are on the defensive side, predominately at linebacker, a position at which the school has been so rich in talent in recent seasons.
Having Watson (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) back in the huddle at quarterback is a good place to start. Last season, he proved to be cool under pressure with 2,088 passing yards and 17 touchdowns, along with 491 rushing yards, en route to the region title. Miller says his quarterback has continued to grow in his leadership ability.
"He's getting better and better," Miller said. "Deshaun has so much ability with his feet and his arm to make plays."
Gainesville has a nice complement of wide receivers to catch passes with senior Stephen
Mason, and juniors Keyontra Harrison, Shad Petree and Justin Cantrell.
At running back, Gainesville will have junior Lahius Leverrette and sophomore Rayshon Thomas leading the backfield. Thomas (5-4, 150) got considerable playing time last season and finished with 270 yards and four touchdowns.
"Ray Ray thinks he's 6-3, 250," Miller said. "His little feet just never stop moving."
The Red Elephants should get a good push from the offensive line with returning starters Patrick McKibben (6-5, 280) at left guard, Chase England (6-2, 200) at left tackle and Rafael Upchurch (5-11, 275) at right guard. Filling in the holes of graduating seniors are center Carlos Figueredo and right tackle Zeke Henderson.
On the defensive front, the Red Elephants are looking at three new starters with Royal Freeman, Upchurch and Conner Calvert. At linebacker, it's also a young crop with Michael Pittman, and either Toddrick Stringer or Quez Dukes starting on the outside. At inside linebacker, Royce Freeman and J.J. Johnson, the half-brother of A.J. Johnson, will be starting.
In the secondary, Joseph Haley and either T.K. Mize or Dallas DeFoor will start at cornerback. At safety, Fred Payne returns and will be the leader of the defense, according to Miller. At the other safety spot, either Eli Nwefo or Bubba Camp will be starting.
"We have a lot of players to replace, but that's what makes high school football so exciting," Miller said.
Harrison and Leverrette will get most of the work handling kick and punt returns. Aidan Reising will do the kicking and punting for the Red Elephants.
Even though Gainesville has a fair number of question marks entering the season, few are going to discount them as a contender to win the Region 8-AAA title. The Red Elephants will score plenty of points, giving the defense some room to make errors as they grow as a unit.
Look for Gainesville's main competition for the No. 1 spot in the subregion to come from Monroe Area. If the Red Elephants can successfully get past that challenge, their fans can probably look forward to opening the playoffs at City Park.