Saturday November 28th, 2015 4:36AM

Falcons adjusting well on the fly this summer

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Just a few weeks ago Jackson McDonald cut a frustrated figure on the gridiron.

The rising junior and starting quarterback for the Flowery Branch Falcons freely admits that spring practice proved a trying time, as he came to grips with his position on a team that requires much from its signal caller.

"I didn't start well," McDonald said. "When I came out of spring and into summer I wasn't very comfortable."

What a difference a few weeks can make.

Thanks to the effort expended through workouts, camps and multiple 7-on-7 tournaments McDonald is rounding into exactly the type of quarterback Flowery Branch coaches and teammates believed they saw in the former back-up.

"I'm surprised how big a gap he's made up since the end of spring," Falcons offensive coordinator Ed Stokes said. "I'm very hesitant to give praise to any player, but you can really see (McDonald) starting to see the big picture and progressing through to his fourth and fifth reads. He's also starting to show the intangibles you need out of a quarterback."

McDonald's progression is just one of a handful of changes that Flowery Branch finds itself embracing this summer.

The adjustments start at the top for the Falcons, after longtime defensive coordinator Chris Griffin moved up to take over the program following the departure of Lee Shaw -- who had led Flowery Branch since the school's foundation in 2002 -- to take over his alma mater Rabun County.

"It's definitely different," Griffin said of being head coach. "Most of what I take care of on a daily basis is stuff away from the football field, the logistical stuff."

Griffin also had to find a new offensive coordinator after Benji Harrison left to take over Jackson County.

As much as things change around the Branch, however, the more they stay the same.

Just as the Falcons stayed within the program when promoting Griffin, Flowery Branch also kept things within its family for offensive coordinator, naming longtime assistant Stokes to the position.

"Not a lot has changed for the players," Griffin said. "The kids have adapted and made the transition pretty seamlessly."

It helps that the Falcons return plenty of experience, including standouts such as receiver/defensive back Darius Curry.

"Coach Griffin's doing a great job and everybody's working extremely hard," Curry said. "Of course every team's got room for improvement, but that's why we're working this summer. And we're going to keep progressing."

Much of that work has come through 7-on-7 passing leagues and tournaments, such as the Falcons' "Top Flight" competition that Flowery Branch hosted on Wednesday at the school -- an event that also featured programs such as Norcross, Peachtree Ridge, Tucker, Mill Creek and Collins Hill.

"These tournaments are so vital for us to get our timing down between the receivers and quarterback," Curry said. "And for me being a defensive back playing against a team with the speed of Norcross is unbelievable. It gets me ready for the season."

Perhaps no Falcons player has benefitted more than McDonald, however.

"I'm progressing great right now, and I've really started connecting with these guys," the quarterback said. "Right now I feel this offense is starting to click; we're starting to work at a fast tempo and are really coming together.

"That's been the biggest thing for us is that we're really starting understand each other and taking this time together. Spring was good to see what kind of athletes we have on this team -- and we have some tremendous athletes -- but now we're starting to put things together."

Griffin has also been impressed by what he's seen from McDonald this summer.

"If he can continue to grow the way he has done these past few weeks he'll be just fine," Griffin said. "He's still got a ways to go, and he knows that. But he's getting better in a hurry."

Filling the shoes of former standout signal callers such as Jaybo and Connor Shaw, Austin Brown and Kanler Coker was never going to be easy, but McDonald feels he's now on the right path to doing just that.

"I feel like I've grown up a lot," McDonald said. "I remember back in the spring I called Kanler one night and was asking him some advice when things weren't clicking. He just told me, 'when you throw a pick you've got to come right back and keep slinging it. You'll be OK.' He really mentored me a lot."

The continued 7-on-7 reps have also helped focus McDonald's resolve.

"Things change so quickly out here; a game can change in a moment," McDonald said. "If you have a bad play you can't get agitated, because you can come right back and throw a touchdown the very next play or series."

With the Falcons' spread attack -- one that asks its quarterback to be versatile and knowledgeable -- the experience has been invaluable.

"This is the most mentally-complicated offense I can think of for a high school quarterback," McDonald said. "I'm making at least four different reads on every snap."

And it's an offense that -- just like the Falcons program -- isn't in store for many changes, despite some personnel adjustments.

"The core parts of this offense will always be there -- tempo, spread and space," Stokes said. "We may tweak a few things here and there, but we'll still be the same offense. We were scoring around 44 points per game last year (44.8). If it ain't broke don't fix it."
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