FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch senior running backs Malik Damons and Malik Drayton actually had a choice.
Thunder and Lightning? “That one’s been done a lot,” Drayton said.
Dynamic Duo? “Nope. Too plain,” Drayton added.
Two-headed Dragon? “We liked that one. We thought it kind of fit us. One likes to bite you, the other likes to burn you,” Drayton said of the various nicknames their teammates looked to pin on the duo. “I’m the fire guy and (Damons) usually takes big bites (of the defense).”
Whatever you call them, Damons and Drayton have been nearly unstoppable in 2017.
Damons, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound bruiser, has 908 yards with 15 touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and 129.7 yards a game running mainly downhill. Drayton, a diminutive 5-6, 145-pounds, can break ankles with his shiftiness and has amassed a combined total of 807 yards (75 rushes, 609 yards, 8.1 ypc, 12 TDs; 11 receptions, 198 yards, 2 TDs).
The pair isn’t the only reason for Fowery Branch's success, but they are a huge factor in the Falcons major turnaround in 2017. Now 6-1, 3-0 in Region 8-AAAAA, the Branch went just 3-7 in 2016 with largely the same roster and hasn't reached the state playoffs since 2013.
“They offer different matchups for defenses and they compliment each other very well,” first-year Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall said. “We felt coming into the season they had a chance in our system to have big years. They’re just taking advantage of their opportunities, and I think they wanted to be successful in their senior years and have worked very hard.
“They have different styles and that gives us options. Damons has that big body that can go inside and find those tough yards you need. Drayton is extremely quick and we move him around to try and get a good one-on-one matchup. He can catch the ball and makes people miss. But we have some perimeter threats as well and that helps open things up for them. So far we’ve been able to have success.”
Flowery Branch has scored the third-most points in Class AAAAA and is averaging 39.9 points per game, good for the sixth-best scoring average in the classification. Drayton's and Damons's 29 combined touchdowns are good for 174 of the Falcons 279 total points.
Drayton, however, admitted that he wasn’t sure if he was going to return for his senior year after a turbulent junior season that saw him not finish the campaign with the Falcons. But after one sit-down with Hall, he knew things were about to change.
“I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to (return),” he recalled. “But I told myself I would at least meet Coach Hall and then decide. After that first meeting, I knew I wanted to be here. You could tell right away that things were going to be different. After our first scrimmage with everyone together I knew we had something here. You could just see that everyone was excited and buying into what the coaches were teaching.”
Yet Drayton is also quick to point out that the “Dragon’s” success starts with the other nine guys on the field. A key move before the season was Hall moving 6-3, 235-pound Nick Lance from quarterback to tight end. Unknown sophomore Elijah Gainey moved to the QB slot, and Drayton said that completed the offensive transformation.
“The offensive line has been amazing. They have really been coached-up this year. Nick can do it all -- catch, block, he’s a leader. Having him where he is now is huge for us. The receivers are making plays on the outside and Elijah passed the eye-test the first time you saw him play,” Drayton said. “Our success is because everyone is doing their jobs.”
On Friday Flowery Branch travels to Loganville (1-5, 1-1) which is rebuilding with a young offense and has lost three games by a touchdown or less. The Falcons have a chance to set themselves up for a grand finish in Region 8-AAAAA with Clarke Central (5-2, 2-1) to follow and then a regular-season finale against No. 3 Buford (4-1, 2-0) and a possible region title at stake.
Despite what looks like a mismatch on paper against the Red Devils, it will be without a doubt the most important game the Falcons seniors have ever played. Yet this particular Falcons group has already encountered one high-pressure game this season -- a 35-29 loss at Jefferson that featured a playoff-type atmosphere.
“We learned a lot about this team in that (Jefferson) game in that they can play and want to have success,” Hall said. “We thought they responded well to a very emotional and tough atmosphere. What we’re seeing now is this team is finally becoming player-led. Early on they looked to the coaches for that leadership and now they’re finding it among themselves.”
Drayton said they are ready to see what they can do.
“Looking back the last couple of years and how things are this year, I think the past seniors may not have wanted it that much,” he said. “This is a very close team. We have bought into what the coaches are telling us and we’re having success. The seniors really want to go out big.”
And Hall thinks they have a chance to do just that.
“As a staff we expected to be able to get this group into the playoffs, whatever that took,” he said. “I feel at this point we have a chance not just to make the playoffs but hopefully to make some noise. But we still have three tough games left so right now we’re just focusing on Loganville.
“We believed in this group and now they are believing in themselves. This has been a lot of fun. We all have a real sense of accomplishment watching these guys have success with all the changes they’ve had to go through.”
Drayton said they are ready to see just how lethal the “Dragon” can get down the stretch.
“Before the season Malik and I sat down and said we wanted to be the best (running back) tandem in the state. We feel like we’re up there but we definitely can get better. Our goal now is to try and help carry us into the playoffs and hopefully to a state title.”