GAINESVILLE -- After watching film of Mundy's Mill this week, the Gainesville defense understands a little of what opposing teams feel when they watch the Red Elephants.
Rodney Smith may not have the widespread notoriety of Deshaun Watson, but the Tigers running back is every bit as dangerous as Gainesville's standout quarterback and is a player that every defense knows it must find a way to slow.
(To watch a video preview of Friday's quarterfinal showdown between Gainesville and Mundy's Mill, simply click "play" in the box to the right.)
Knowing and doing have proven two different things, however -- in the case of both teams.
Watson has tallied 4,198 total yards and 55 total touchdowns this season, while Smith has racked up 2,045 total yards and 25 touchdowns of his own and has bewildered and frustrated plenty of would-be tacklers with his blend of speed and toughness.
"It's a tremendous challenge. We're really priding ourselves on stopping him this week," Gainesville linebacker Devan Stringer said. "They really count on him to put the team on his back. They'll run it on third and long just as much as pass it, so we're priding ourselves on stopping that."
The Red Elephants' defense has impressed through two playoff games so far, allowing just 26 points and coming up with crucial turnovers in each. Their per game average of 13 points allowed is even better than their season average of 16, showing that they may be hitting their peak at just the right time.
"We're definitely getting better every week," Stringer said. "But we want to continue to strive to reach our peak. We've got to keep swarming to the ball and play hard on every play."
That will certainly be the case against Smith, whose tackle-breaking ability means that Gainesville will want as many defenders around the ball as possible on every snap.
"It's a huge focus for us this week to get everybody to the ball, all 11 defenders," Stringer said. "We want to make him feel like no one's blocking."
Of course Smith has had plenty of impressive blocking this season, which is a big reason why the senior has enjoyed success -- just over a year removed from a torn ACL suffered in game nine of his junior season.
"Our offensive line has really stepped up this season," Mundy's Mill coach Greg Manior said. "But Rodney is our leader and our inspiration, and the kids have rallied around him. We like to pound the ball, and we have some guys that can really make a difference out there like Brandon Williams at left tackle and Darius Anderson at right tackle. Our fullback Davantarious Washington has also been a Godsend for us."
The Tigers also feature a capable quarterback in Rodricous Gates, a junior that has passed for 1,231 yards and 14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Eric Tate (26 receptions, 461 yards, 7 TDs) and Marquis Kempson (16 receptions, 339 yards, 3 TDs) have been Gates' top targets.
"Our offense is not a finesse team; hopefully our wide receivers can stand up and make some big plays though on Friday, because we're going to need them," Manior said. "We've got to stop the best quarterback in the state if not the southeast, so we may have to outscore them."
Watson showed just how explosive he can be last week, answering a poor passing night in the first round with a clinical 25-of-33 passing performance in last week's 51-12 win over South Paulding that saw the senior finish with 432 yards and five touchdowns through the air -- which dovetailed nicely with his 107 yards rushing.
Yet, like Mundy's Mill, Gainesville is far from one-dimensional, and Watson is surrounded by playmakers at receiver and running back, as well as an offensive line that has improved continuously.
"I have so many weapons I can rely on and throw the ball to that can make big plays," said Watson, who leads an offense averaging 49.9 points per game. "There's six-eight guys that can make plays. You can't eye one guy."
Between Jay Gaudlock (1,131 yards receiving, 13 TDs), Rodney Lackey (733 yards, 11 TDs), Chastin Newman (637 yards, 8 TDs) and running back Michael Byrd (937 yards rushing, 13 TDs; 511 yards receiving, 2 TDs), the Red Elephants present a number of challenges for opposing defenses with a plethora of threats. Yet Mundy's Mill could have the speed to challenge Gainesville in one-on-one situations and make things tough for Gainesville's spread attack.
"They're very quick," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "They play a lot of man coverage. I expect them to get up in our face and challenge us. They remind me a lot of our defense."
Mundy's Mill also shares a displayed mental toughness with the Red Elephants -- an attitude that helped the Tigers bounce back from a 0-4 start to rip off eight straight wins, including their first ever state playoff victories.
"There were some doubts there early, and it was real tough, but I kept telling the kids that we were close to doing some big things; I could see it on film," Manior said. "But what that losing did was get rid of some the kids that weren't totally committed. Everyone we've got now is totally committed. The real football players are what is left."
It should make for an intriguing battle of wills and nerves come Friday at City Park, as Gainesville looks to maintain its title trek of a season ago and send its seniors out on top.
"I'm very focused, and all the other seniors are focused too," Watson said. "They know this is their last go-around, and they're trying to send it off like last year's seniors. A lot of people think I'm ready to get off to college, but actually I wish time could slow down a little bit because it's going too fast right now."
And you can expect a lot more speed tonight at City Park.