This offseason has been a little busier than usual for Gainesville’s Bruce Miller.
In addition to the conditioning work and preparation for next week’s spring practice, the coach of the 2012 Class AAAAA football champion Red Elephants has spent a lot of time at speaking engagements and events like last week’s ring presentation ceremony.
He’s also spending a lot of time trying to keep expectations for the 2013 season under control.
“We were extremely excited to win it. It was the very first one for us,” Miller said. “And it kind of sets you up … with the kids we’ve got coming back, can you do it again? Of course everybody we play now has us circled on their schedule and they say, ‘This is the team we need to beat.’ But that’s just part of it. You’ve got to practice well and play well. Don’t get to thinking you’re great, because it’s a new season that’s fixing to start.”
The expectations are fueled by the return of 13 starters. But they are through the roof because of the return of Deshaun Watson, the 2012 Class AAAAA player of the year.
The quarterback will enter his senior season already holding the state’s career records for passing yardage (9,360), all-purpose touchdowns (155) and touchdown passes (108). As a junior, he passed for 4,021 yards and rushed for 1,441, becoming the third quarterback in state history to pass for 4,000 yards in a season and the second to throw 50 TD passes.
Watson, who has committed to Clemson, led an offense that averaged 45.3 points per game for the season and 48.6 during the playoffs, when the Red Elephants won their five games by an average of 29.4 points.
“Everybody knows that to stop us you have to stop him,” Miller said. “Last year, we were kind of the hunter. But with Deshaun back and the other starters we have coming back, we won’t sneak up on anybody. So we’re going to have to play good from the start.”
Watson will again have several potent weapons at his disposal. Rising junior Rodney Lackey was the team’s leading receiver and an honorable mention all-state selection in 2012, and returning running backs Michael Byrd and Jay Gaudlock combined for more than 1,000 yards rushing and about 800 receiving.
Miller said his biggest concerns heading into spring practice are the offensive and defensive lines and the secondary, where the Red Elephants will lose all-state defensive back Fred Payne, a Western Carolina signee. Payne returned a fumble 38 yards for a touchdown and set up another score with a 69-yard interception return in the 49-13 victory over Ware County in the state final.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Miller said. “We’re probably going to be bigger up front than we were last year. But will they jell together like they did last year? Things have got to come together for us there. I know a lot of coaches talk about this a lot, but team chemistry is huge.
“I’m glad we won the state championship, but once everybody realizes that that’s over with, they know we’ve got another season to play. Our kids have done that, and I think our coaches have, too.”
Gainesville Red Elephants
2012 record: 12-3, 6-2 in Region 8-AAAAA, beat Ware County 49-13 in the Class AAAAA championship game.
Starters returning: 7 offense, 6 defense
Key players lost: DB Fred Payne, WR Caleb Hayman, OL Chase England, DL Damian Grayson, LB Michael Pittman, DL Connor Calvert
Key players returning: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Rodney Lackey, LB Devan Stringer, RB Michael Byrd, RB Jay Gaudlock
Spring practice dates: April 29-May 10
Aug. 30 – at West Forsyth
Sept. 6 – Buford
Sept. 13 – Winder-Barrow
Sept. 20 – at Apalachee
Sept. 27 – at Heritage-Conyers
Oct. 4 – Cedar Shoals
Oct. 11 – Salem
Oct. 18 – at Clarke Central
Nov. 1 – at Loganville
Nov. 8 – Flowery Branch
Outlook: Gainesville won the first state championship in the program’s long, proud history in 2012, and it will start the season as a heavy favorite to win the title again this year. Record-setting quarterback Deshaun Watson is one of seven returning starters from the state’s top offense. Is it possible he could match or even surpass his numbers from last season? The Red Elephants will be tested early, opening the season with games against Class AAAAAA playoff team West Forsyth and defending Class AAA champion Buford.