Sunday May 29th, 2016 7:42PM

Underclassmen helping spark Red Elephants' charge

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- Chris Byrd had no idea when the call would come, but the Gainesville High freshman determined he would be ready when it did.

Was he ever.

Just days before the Red Elephants' first round playoff game with Rome, Byrd learned that not only would he be making his first varsity start in the contest, he would do so in a new position -- in a playoff game coming just days after Gainesville had suffered its first back-to-back losses in five years.

The freshman's response belied his varsity (in)experience, as Byrd turned in a 14-tackle performance that helped the Red Elephants to a 41-14 win -- setting Gainesville on its way to a fifth straight state quarterfinal berth.

"Chris really stepped up; we were really depleted in the secondary before that game and needed someone to fill in, and he did a tremendous job," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said of the linebacker who had seen mostly special teams duties to that point.

As far as Byrd was concerned he was simply following a template set by a number of Red Elephants underclassmen, as numerous younger players have stepped forward to play critical roles on this season's team.

"We've got a lot of younger guys who can make plays, and the older guys on the team had been talking to me and encouraging me every day in practice," said Byrd, whose older brother, Michael, himself a sophomore, is the team's starting running back. "My brother told me that Sunday I would be starting at a new position, and I thought he was crazy, but I captured that moment and did the best I could do."

It is a familiar story for a number of Gainesville's players in 2012, including both Byrds, receiver Rodney Lackey and defensive standouts Jadarius (JD) Sosebee and Lewis Cousins, all sophomores and all taking leadership roles.

"All these guys have stepped up and done some big things for us this season," Miller said. "Sometimes you worry about throwing a young guy in there, especially against Class AAAAA competition. The worst thing you can do to a kid is have him lose confidence because he's not ready to play at a varsity level yet. But all these guys have handled it well, and they're all competitors."

Maybe no Red Elephant is a better example of that than Lackey. A junior varsity player as a freshman, the sophomore has stepped to the fore this campaign with a team-high 57 receptions for 847 yards and 13 touchdowns, including a team-high nine catches for 53 yards in last week's second round, 61-42 defeat of Kell in Marietta.

"I really just wanted to contribute as much as I could this year," said Lackey, who admits that he struggled a little in preseason and summer. "I worked hard on my own trying to get better. I didn't want to let the team down. But I never would have thought I would lead the team in catches as a sophomore."

Lackey isn't the only underclassman to put up impressive numbers over the course of the season. Michael Byrd is second on the team in rushing -- behind dual threat quarterback Deshaun Watson -- with 91 carries for 542 yards and 5 scores. He also has 28 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, on defense, Sosebee has 108 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery from his linebacker spot, and defensive back Cousins has 67 tackles, three pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.

That's not to say that Gainesville is a young team, rather the Red Elephants are an evenly split squad that features talent amongst all of its classes -- the current roster features 25 seniors, 23 juniors, 25 sophomores and 25 freshmen.

"This is a team that's a mix of age groups that's gelled at the right time," Miller said. "And I think that shows in the way they bounced back from those two losses at the end of the season (a shock, 46-41 defeat to Loganville and a 35-34 setback against Flowery Branch in the Region 8-AAAAA title game). They could have easily have given up and said let's get this season over with in the Rome game. Instead, they're in there fighting."

Cousins says it's the only way he knows how to play, and that it is a mindset instilled in younger players by veterans and coaches alike.

"Last year, as a freshman, they prepared me to come in and play a lot this year," Cousins said. "Coach (Wayne) Jones and (senior safety) Fred (Payne) taught me a lot, so I came in here confident and ready to compete."

Cousins added that having a talent on the roster like Watson, a junior Clemson commit that started the first game of his freshman campaign, also gives younger players plenty of motivation.

"Everyone wants to be where Deshaun is," Cousins said. "And we see what it's going to take to get there."

If it's a case of hard work, the Red Elephants' younger players are more than happy to labor, and Michael Byrd notes that the entire Gainesville team grew accustomed to intense labor over the summer, as coaches invigorated preparations for the Red Elephants' jumping two classifications to Class AAAAA.

"They worked us hard," Michael Byrd said. "But we knew we had to to be successful, and, if we keep working, we're going to be hard to beat."

It's safe to say that's already the case -- though Gainesville players and coaches aren't satisfied with reaching the quarterfinals and are looking for a way to get past a red-hot Harris County team, which has won eight straight games, this Friday on the road.

"We have to play our best game Friday," Michael Byrd said. "But we expect to play our best game every Friday."

Heady words indeed for a sophomore -- but nothing unusual for these Red Elephants.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Tiger Stadium, Hamilton
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- GAINESVILLE (9-3, No. 2 seed Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Kell 61-42 in the second round.
-- HARRIS COUNTY (8-4, No. 1 seed Region 1-AAAAA): Defeated Warner Robins 31-21 in the second round.
-- HISTORY: This is the first meeting between the two teams.
-- WINNER PLAYS: Whitewater vs. Allatoona winner in the semifinals.
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