One of the most interesting aspects of coaching high school football, according to Gainesville coach Bruce Miller, is the constant roster changes.
Although he’s been able to maintain a winning program despite the turnover, Miller will have his work cut out for him, as the Red Elephants must replace nine offensive starters — including QB Blake Sims and WR Tai-ler Jones — and seven defensive starters — including three linebackers who were a part of “the best set of linebackers” Miller has ever coached.
“It’s part of the game,” Miller said. “We don’t have any long-term contracts. You fill in the blanks, you fill in the spot, and it makes it exciting to see if you can put people in the right place in the puzzle and make it work for you.”
What makes it even more exciting — and possibly more pressure-packed — is Gainesville is coming off a season when it reached the state title game and lost on a failed 2-point conversion at the end of regulation. Whether or not the Red Elephants can get back to the Georgia Dome will be decided on the aforementioned puzzle pieces.
Coming off a season in which they averaged 41 points per game, the Red Elephants enter the 2010 season with a new offensive line, an untested group of running backs and wide receivers and a new quarterback, which is the key position in Gainesville’s spread attack.
The competition for starter is undecided, and the two players vying for the position might not know who won the job until days before kickoff. Junior Stephen Mason, who Miller called “the most accurate of the quarterbacks,” is familiar with the system and has experience playing on Friday nights. He’s battling freshman Deshaun Watson, who may become the first freshman quarterback to start for Miller in his 36-year coaching career.
“Deshaun is just what you want in a quarterback,” Miller said. “He’s tall, he’s slender, he has a good arm and he runs well.”
Another concern is protecting the quarterback and opening holes for a stable of running backs that include seniors Devon Pierce, Markece Robertson and sophomore Justin Cantrell.
“That’s probably the biggest question mark we have,” Miller said, referring to the offensive line. “They have a challenge in front of them to replace five guys who were very good players.”
Replacing Jones will also be a challenge, but Miller is confident in his two returning starters — Michael Lorentz and Desmund Hamilton — and converted QB Trey Harrison, who has big-play capability. Miller said whichever quarterback isn’t the starter will also see time at wide receiver.
Just as impressive as the offense was last year, Gainesville’s defense also took a big hit with the graduation of seven key players from last year’s unit. Luckily, A.J. Johnson wasn’t one of them.
“I kept telling college coaches he’s not coming out early,” Miller said about Johnson, a highly-recruited Division-I prospect. “We have one position on the team that’s not up for grabs, and that’s A.J.’s.”
Johnson will have three new linebackers alongside him this year, including Kevin Hall, who played on the defensive line last year. Former Johnson High running back Mantevius Rucker will also help fill the void left by Thomas Sprague, Alberto Sanabria and Graham Simmons.
“You don’t replace those guys,” Miller said.
“You just hope the guys can play with a lot of heart. These kids have something to prove; it’s their time to step up and play.”
Lineman Tim Rucker is one player who has already shown he’s ready to contribute, and combined with Thomas Niles, the Red Elephants have a solid front seven.
The secondary is anchored by cornerback Mike Norman, who could also play quarterback and wide receiver. Other members of the secondary include: Fred Payne, Joseph Haley, Dallas DeFoor and returning starter Kendrick Millsap.
Miller says he’s entering the season with a renewed confidence in the kicking game.
“I think the fact that Reid Almond is returning is a big plus for us,” Miller said. “He’s done a lot of work this offseason and it’s shown.”
Mason and Corey Ciepiela will rotate punting duties and the kickoff returns could be handled by several of the capable athletes on the roster.
It’s hard to imagine the Red Elephants having a season like last year, but if this group jells and plays up to its potential, another lengthy playoff run could be in the cards.