Wednesday June 1st, 2016 4:00AM

Gainesville bracing for first big Region 8-AAAAA test

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- Gainesville football coach Bruce Miller isn't exactly sure what to expect on Friday night when his Red Elephants play host to Heritage -- other than an all-out battle.

"We've never played these guys; we don't know them; there's just a lot of unknowns heading into this game," Miller said. "But I'm excited. I'm also anxious to see how our kids respond. This will be our first real test in the region."

Certainly Heritage -- which split last year's Region 8-AAAA title with Flowery Branch and Clarke Central and has been to the state playoffs two straight seasons -- knows how to win big games. And the Patriots (4-0, 2-0 Region 8-AAAAA) enter Friday's contest, which will be broadcast live on 1240 AM, featuring one of the better defenses eighth-ranked Gainesville (3-1, 2-0) will face.

"They're very athletic; they've got great size and good speed, and they'll be the best group of linebackers we've seen all year," Miller said.

Led by senior inside linebackers Chase Alford (6-feet-2, 220 pounds) and Dustin Moore (6-1, 220) and outside linebacker Dominique Packer (5-11, 210) in a 3-4 base, the Patriots are allowing just 5.3 points per game.

"They thrive on turnovers," Miller said. "We'll have to take care of the ball."

After giving up eight turnovers in their first two contests -- a 32-30 loss to Class AAAAAA No. 5 West Forsyth and a 19-15 defeat of Class AAA No. 4 Buford -- the Red Elephants have been much stingier with the ball in their first two region games -- contests in which Gainesville have destroyed Winder-Barrow and Apalachee by a combined 131-20 scoreline.

Gainesville enters Friday's showdown averaging 45 points per game and junior quarterback Deshaun Watson is again firing on all cylinders after a strong start that was otherwise marred by eight interceptions.

"It was kind of frustrating thise first two weeks," Watson said after last week's 62-20 defeat of Apalachee. "But I couldn't let myself get down. I had to keep my head up and keep leading the team. I knew things would turn around."

Certainly that has been the case for the 6-4 dual threat, who went 18-for-18 in the win over Winder-Barrow and 18-for-21 in last week's victory.

Watson has also spread the ball around, completing passes to a number of different receivers and handing the ball off to two talented running backs in Jay Gaudlock and Michael Byrd.

Similarly, Gainesville has built some depth on defense, a unit that -- aside from a disappointing second quarter performance against West Forsyth, in which the Red Elephants allowed 25 points -- has allowed just over 11 points per game through three wins.

This week, the Red Elephants will face a power ground game that will attempt to run right at Gainesville via a wing-T attack. Led by senior Myron Fears (5-7, 180, 169 yards in last week's 21-0 win over Cedar Shoals), the Patriots are averaging 21.3 points per game.

"They are a ball-control oriented football team," Miller said. "From the film I've seen they aren't really a quick-strike team, but they've got a great offensive front and will just try to keep the ball away from you."

The Patriots also feature a dangerous kickoff return man in Kimari Neal, who scored on a 93-yards return in last week's win over the Jaguars.

Gainesville also returned two kicks for scores last week -- one each from Fred Payne and Tray Harrison.

"We're expecting a knock-down, drag-out," Miller said. "As early as this game is in the region schedule, it could be for something big -- but it could not be too. We've got a lot of football to play and some other very good teams. But this one will certainly be a big one for us."

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: City Park, Gainesville
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- HERITAGE (4-0, 2-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Cedar Shoals 21-0 last week.
-- GAINESVILLE (3-1, 2-0 Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Apalachee 62-20 last week. The Red Elephants are ranked No. 8 in Class AAAAA.
-- HISTORY: This is the two teams' first meeting.
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