JEFFERSON -- Jefferson football coach T McFerrin knows a good quarterback when he sees one. After all, he coached former Georgia standout David Greene while at South Gwinnett.
Greene is among a handful of great quarterbacks McFerrin, who began his coaching career in 1968 at Lithonia, has coached along the way. Chris Welton, who went on to play for Georgia in the 1970's, and more recently Darius Minor in 2009 at Jefferson are others that came to mind during a conversation Tuesday as the Dragons prepared for their first state title game since 1977 against defending Class AA state champion Calhoun at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
So as McFerrin has watched the maturation of current Dragons signal-caller Bryant Shirreffs over the last three seasons, what is his assessment of the tall, cagey senior that took over as a sophomore with the graduation of Minor?
"Well, you really can't compare (Greene and Bryant)," McFerrin said. "David was more of a pure drop-back passer while Bryant is more of a dual threat. But both have a lot of heart and the desire to do whatever they need to do to win. Darius was more like Bryant with his ability to run. But Bryant is a better passer than Darius was. Bryant is definitely one of the best I've ever coached."
COMING UP: On Thursday, we'll look at Gainesville's Class AAAAA title showdown with Ware County. ... On Friday we'll preview Jefferson's battle with Calhoun. ... ALSO on Friday we'll present a special video review of Buford, Gainesville and Jefferson's MARCH TO THE DOME.
For the season Shirreffs has amassed some huge numbers. He has 2,181 yards and 17 touchdowns passing and 1,233 yards and 18 touchdowns rushing. His passing yards are slightly more than Greene's as a senior but with two more games played.
If not for Deshaun Watson at Gainesville, Shirreffs numbers would be good enough to be the standard-bearer for north Georgia quarterbacks.
"The Gainesville kid is great. I would think Bryant is among the best around. He may not have the numbers that the Gainesville kid has but he does so many little things that don't show up in stats but get you wins," McFerrin said.
Still, with Shirreffs at the helm, it is the most prolific offense in Jefferson history averaging just under 39 points a game. That surpasses the previous best of 36.7 points a game by the Minor-led 2009 team.
The Dragons also are on a streak of 11 straight games of scoring 31 points or more, the longest such streak in team history. In comparison, the 1977 state runner-up team scored 13 points or less seven times and was shut out twice. That team was defensive-minded allowing just 121 total points (8.0 ppg) with five shutouts and held 12 opponents to 14 points or less.
But McFerrin said it's more than just numbers.
"They believe in him and feel when he's out there he will make things happen," McFerrin said. "He's had a remarkable season so far."
No matter what happens on Saturday, Shirreffs has already cemented his place in Jefferson lore. He guided the Dragons to a huge upset over then-Class AAA-ranked North Hall, which advanced to the semifinals, on the road early in the season and then helped direct a 31-0 destruction of a Class AA ranked Washington-Wilkes team that was a the early favorite in Region 8-AA.
But he may have taken on legendary status after engineering a remarkable 53-51 triple-overtime win over Fitzgerald in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. He had two TD passes and two rushing touchdowns and answered every Fitzgerald score in the overtime.
"One of the most incredible games and performances I've ever seen in all my years of coaching," McFerrin said. "He just kept making plays and even helped spark our defense when he had to go in for an injured player for one play."
Fellow senior teammate Wesley Simonton said Shirreffs has earned his wings as the leader of the team.
"He does whatever he has to to win," Simonton said. "When the offense is out there we just know he's going to lead them down the field. He gives everyone confidence that we can win every game.
"I wasn't worried about him playing defense as much as I am when I see him take a big hit on offense. But he's a tough dude."
Shirreffs proved that midway through the Fitzgerald game. He took a huge shot to his side on a keeper and laid on the turf for several seconds. A collective groan reverberated through Memorial Stadium as he was forced to leave the game. But one play later he was back in the huddle.
"We definitely got a little worried when we saw him come off the field," Simonton said. "We weren't sure what was going to happen because we had never seen him leave the field like that. But when he came back out, it showed he wasn't going to go down easy."
The spread offense system McFerrin has put in place is taylor-made for Shirreffs. He has the ability to take read-option running plays, roll-out, or drop back in the passing game depending on where the defense is vulnerable.
"The game has changed so much over the years, and I think it's a better game, that you need to have things in place that play to the strengths of your personnel," McFerrin said. "Bryant can do it all and we try to take advantage of that."
In the Dragons' semifinal win over Greater Atlanta Christian last week, Shirreffs tossed two more TD passes, but it was his 51-yard quarterback keeper to give them a lead they would never relinquish that was the back-breaker for the Spartans.
It came after Simonton had set the tone on the defensive series just prior with a quarterback sack, a tackle for those, and then helping force a GAC fumble with the game tied.
"(His run) got us going as a team," Simonton said. "We knew after the fumble he and the offense were going to do something special. You could see it when he went out there."
Shirreffs' however, downplayed his role as a one-man wrecking crew.
"It's a team sport and we play real well as a team," he said. "The defense has picked us up a couple of times and we have several guys on offense who have made big plays all year. I can't do it all by myself."
But he did say he has come a long way since that first spring practice as a nervous freshman knowing he had a shot to play in the fall as a sophomore.
"There was competition with a couple of other guys but I thought I had a pretty good spring and would get a shot," he said. "My first year I was pretty nervous. I don't remember a whole lot so I don't think it was that remarkable a season. I think I got better last year but this year I think all the seniors have improved a lot and we talked about going out in style. The game slowed down a little for me and that's when I started to get more confidence."
Despite wanting to go out in style as a senior, Shirreffs said no one really talked about getting to the Dome or winning state titles. Until two weeks ago.
"Not that we didn't want to do it but we started bad with a loss to Commerce and we knew we would have to play week-to-week and play hard to win games," he said. "The North Hall game was a turning point that gave us confidence and the Washington-Wilkes game proved that we could beat good teams. But we really just worried about who we were playing each week.
"But after the Fitzgerald game I think we all started thinking about the Dome. We knew we were close and I think that helped us get ready for GAC. Now we're here so we'll see how we do."
Simonton said he is feels the Dragons have the secret weapon with Shirreffs under center.
"(The defense) watches them every time they go out there because they are fun to watch and we feel they are going to score every time," Simonton said. "Calhoun will be a huge challenge for us, the toughest yet. But I have confidence that No. 15 will make things happen for us."
JEFFERSON vs. CALHOUN
-- WHAT: Class AA football championship
-- WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
-- WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
-- JEFFERSON (13-1, No. 1 seed Region 8-AA): Defeated Greater Atlanta Christian 42-14 in the semifinals.
-- CALHOUN (14-0, No. 1 seed Region 7-AA): Defeated Lamar County 21-14 in the semifinals.
-- HISTORY: Calhoun won the only previous meeting between the two teams, 39-6 in the first round of last year's Class AA playoffs.