Are you ready for some football? And no, we're not talking about the NFL draft -- which starts on Thursday. What we mean is the local kind, the stuff that fills your Friday nights with excitement.
And even though we're still months away from those Friday night lights, the resumption of spring practice -- for most area teams -- means that we can actually start thinking about fall kickoff and what kind of seasn 2014 will bring.
With that in mind let's take a look at the five biggest questions for area football teams, as they go through their spring paces.
1. What will life be like for Gainesville in the post-Deshaun Watson era?
Let's face it, there is no way to replace perhaps the greatest player in Gainesville football's illustrious history and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. And perhaps the key for the Red Elephants is not trying to replace Watson but in establishing their own identity. Mikey Gonzalez and Mesiah Dorsey are working as Gainesville's signal callers this spring -- Gonzalez splitting time with the baseball team -- and each brings something to the position; each can also slide out to play inside receiver when the other slides in at quarterback. Gonzalez, though certainly not of Watson's stature, is a talented athlete in his own right with a quick release and is as steady and knowledgeable of the Red Elephants' offense as any player and perhaps a few coaches. Dorsey is a great athlete that can run and put some zip on his passes. Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller has been pleased from what he's seen in the first week of practice. ... Meanwhile, Miller says that a number of Gainesville players are stepping up to provide leadership this spring, including running back Mike Byrd and linebacker JD Sosebee, who each played key roles in last year's state semifinal run, along with defensive linemen Kash Jones and Jamel Dabney and defensive backs Chris Byrd and Lewis Cousins. The fact that most of those leaders play defense should be good news for Red Elephants fans, who also lost a key on the defensive side of the ball, with the departure of coordinator Jim Pavao for the head coach position at Fannin County. "We won't have the depth that we had last year, but we have some quality players," Miller said.
2. To spring or not to spring?
Starting this season, area coaches can decide whether to hold their traditional, 10-session spring practices or eschew it all in favor of an extra full-pad scrimmage in the fall preseason. There are pros and cons to each method. For instance, teams that already know their personnel and systems well enough can forego repetitive sessions in the spring with the chance to see how those players will perform in a game-like situation -- which is what North Hall decided. Yet for those teams with new coaches or big changes/holes to fill, the spring can be an invaluable time to get know themselves -- such as the case at Chestatee and Gainesville. (True North Hall also has a new head coach, but David Bishop is a longtime assistant and is retaining the systems the Trojans have utilized.) Most area programs are opting to retain spring ball, with Apalachee, Dawson County, North Forsyth, North Hall and Towns County each choosing to skip the spring for an extra scrimmage. "We encourage kids to play other sports here, so often we would be missing a dozen, half-dozen players each spring because they were playing baseball, soccer or tennis," Bishop said. ... Forman said that spring is a useful carrot for his players. "It keeps the enthusiasm up and gives us a little taste of football before we have a long summer," Forman said. In the end, it's a personal choice for each coach/program but an intriguing option for many.
3. How are new head coaches settling in at Chestatee, Fannin County, North Hall, Stephens County and Winder-Barrow?
Head coaching turnover in northeast Georgia is rapidly becoming as seasonal as the game itself. For instance, of the 29 teams in our coverage area 20 have made head coaching changes in the last three seasons. In fact only Apalachee, Buford, Dawson County, East Hall, Gainesville, Lakeview, North Gwinnett, Mill Creek and Union County have avoided the coaching search in recent years. As with all changes, the coaches who can settle their charges quickly and experience quick success stand the likeliest chance of sustained success. The good news for teams like North Hall and Chestatee is that the schools hired two coaches who know their teams well, as both David Bishop and Bill Forman were with the Trojans and War Eagles, respectively. Both are already well settled, with Forman taking the reins of spring practice, while Bishop is learning the ropes with a team skipping spring ball. Both coaches said they were getting a lot of support from assistants and parents, and it will be interesting to see how both shape their programs next season.
4. Who/what will be the identity of the Flowery Branch offense?
For the past two seasons, the Falcons knew that Jackson McDonald was pulling the strings for the offense. Coming into this spring, Flowery Branch must find a new signal caller to take control of the offense. Not only that, they need to find a leader and face for an attack that has, year-in, year-out, been one of the deadliest in northeast Georgia. Jeremiah Goss showed flashes of the ability to be that person last season, leading the team in rushing as a freshman. One thing Flowery Branch can count on is solid to spectacular line play. The Falcons' big men in the trenches consistently grind opposing defensive fronts and you can bet that will be a big key again in 2014.
5. Just how tough will Region 8-AAAA be?
It's been talked about ever since the GHSA released the new region alignments for 2014-15 and 2015-16. Make no mistake, 8-AAAA will be a meat-grinder. But just how tough will it be? The answers are already formulating this spring, but you can rest assured that none of the teams that made the playoffs last season in other regions will want to take a step back when they enter 8-AAAA in 2014. It's a given that Buford will be the early favorite, along with one of the favorites in Class AAAA, but there will be plenty of competition for the Wolves, including playoff teams from a season ago in Chestatee, Monroe Area, North Hall, North Oconee, Stephens County and White County.
Is Charlie Woerner the next big thing in northeast Georgia?
We mean that both figuratively and literally. Woerner may be the most explosive and talented player left in the area now that Watson is gone on to the collegiate ranks. Woerner is an offensive and defensive star for Rabun County, and the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder was always around the ball as a sophomore. If he continues the improvement he showed last season into 2014 you can expect to see his name start showing up amongst the big collegiate recruiting lists.
Who will take the lead in a wide-open Region 7-AAA?
As much as people talk about 8-AAAA, Region 7-AAA is also intriguing. It doesn't have the star power of 8-AAAA, but there are some quality programs there -- programs that will have a shot at a region championship this season, because none of the squads in 7-AAA have claimed a region crown since 2007 -- when Fannin County won Region 8-AA. In fact -- according to GHSFHA.org -- only three of the teams in the new 7-AAA have won region titles -- East Hall (the last in 1987), Fannin and Franklin County (the last in 1992).