Tuesday February 9th, 2016 5:36PM

Flowery Branch putting early lessons to good use

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
FLOWERY BRANCH -- No one was more disappointed than Flowery Branch football coach Chris Griffin when his team started 0-2.

Five weeks into the season, however, Griffin is quick to admit that those early stumbles may well have paved the way for something pretty special for his now 3-2 Falcons.

"Right after going 0-2 I still had a good feeling those games were going to help us in the long run," said Griffin after his team opened with losses to current Class AAAAA No. 1 Northside-Warner Robins and current Class AAAAAA No. 6 West Forsyth. "We learned so much in those games, and they forced us to get better."

Flowery Branch's rebound began three weeks ago, when the Falcons began their Region 8-AAAAA schedule -- with the help of a quarterback who has benefitted from a varsity baptism of fire.

"We knew he was a great athlete; he just needed some game experience," Griffin said of Jackson McDonald -- the first junior signal caller to start for the Falcons since Connor Shaw. "He would have been the first to tell you that he was a bundle of nerves before his first game. But he's so much more comfortable now, and he's really developing into a leader and manager for us."

The numbers speak for themselves. Since a 45-27 defeat of Cedar Shoals on Sept. 14 -- a game that saw McDonald pile up 329 yards and five touchdowns -- the Falcons are averaging 42.3 points per game. Over that span, McDonald has rolled up 736 yards (245.3 yards per game) and accounted for 14 scores.

Yet it's not just the quarterback who has begun to click, as players like running back Justin Curry and receiver Cameron Davis are also starting to assert themselves as key cogs in the Falcons' spread attack.

"So many guys are in different roles, and all of them are a little more comfortable," Griffin said.

Through its resurgence, Flowery Branch's offense has also begun to lean more on its ground attack, rushing for almost 1,000 yards (955) through the three victories.

"Our offensive line is really the strength of our offense, and they're opening a lot of holes right now," Griffin said. "Our running game is more ahead of our passing game at the moment. But defenses are also trying to take away our passing game, so we're hanging our hat on the run. And we haven't really felt the need to open things up yet."

A beneficiary of that has been sophomore running back Justin Curry. Stepping into a starring role over the past three weeks, Curry -- the younger brother of Flowery Branch receiver/defensive back Darius Curry and current Oklahoma State receiver CJ Curry -- has rushed for 401 yards.

"In our first game he was listed as third team tailback," Griffin said of the younger Curry. "But he's really come on. He's been able to outrun some people, and he's got a bigger body so he can take some hits. He's just a sophomore, and he's continually improving."

Defensively, the Falcons have also seen plenty of improvement for a unit that is allowing 19.6 points per game -- much of that coming after games have already been decided.

"We've got a lot of senior starters on defense that you expect to play well, and they are," Griffin said. "You take away that first game (in which the Falcons allowed 45 points to Northside) and the defense has really risen up and made some big plays."

Flowery Branch has also started to force more mistakes from opposing offenses.

"We had an issue early with forcing turnovers, but not now," said Griffin, who was promoted in the offseason from the team's defensive coordinator position to take over from head coach Lee Shaw (now at Rabun County). "We've had at least one interception in two straight games, and I'm really pleased with what we're doing."

Griffin notes that special teams improvement has also been key, with Will Filson stepping in to take over point after touchdown kicking duties, settling a position that had seen plenty of ups and downs early in the campaign.

The Falcons know they are far from perfect, however, and are continuing to work on penalties and giveaways.

"We have more penalties than our opponents at this point," Griffin said. "And we have got to protect the ball better."

With key games looming in the near future, Flowery Branch knows it must continue its arc of improvement. The Falcons close the regular season with consecutive contests against Heritage, Conyers (Oct. 19) and Clarke Central (Oct. 26) -- who tied Flowery Branch for last year's Region 8-AAAA title -- and Gainesville (Nov. 9).

"I'm just focusing on each Friday night as it comes," Griffin said. "But from this point on I think you can certainly say that each game gets a little more critical, and that, at this point, it can go either way."

Certainly the Falcons know the direction they're headed
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