GAINESVILLE — The 2018 season was one to almost forget for the Gainesville football team.
Sure, the Red Elephants qualified for their 19th straight postseason appearance. But it came in a down year in Region 8-6A and they finished with their worst overall record (2-9) in two decades. There were some internal issues and player defections as new coach Heath Webb worked on reshaping the culture while also rebuilding the program.
It was a tough way for Webb, who took over for the iconic Bruce Miller, to begin his tenure on Century Place. But as they say, that was then, this is now.
"We knew it would take some time, for sure," Webb said. "We felt we had the talent to show improvement this year but I think it has gone better than we expected overall. It's been a much more fun season, that's for sure."
Webb and his staff, and a near-total commitment from the players have seen the Red Elephants not just turn things around in Year 2, but they also are within a win Friday night against No. 5 Lanier of grabbing a home playoff game and posting their first winning regular season since 2015.
The two teams will kick off their regular-season finale at 7:30 p.m. at City Park Stadium. The winner will take the No. 2 seed into next week's Class 6A playoffs and get to play at home. The loser will be the No. 3 seed and have to hit the road.
Lanier has never lost to the Red Elephants and traditionally has relied on some nasty defenses. Nothing has changed in 2019.
For fans of old-school, smash-mouth football, this should be the one for you. Gainesville (5-4, 3-1 Region 8-6A) features one of the best offensive lines in the state, led by senior behemoth and Georgia Tech-commit Jordan Williams. The Longhorns (8-1, 3-1 Region 8-6A) feature one of the state's best front-sevens on defense, led by one of the top linebackers in the nation in Phillip Webb.
Gainesville also features a triple-threat in the backfield with RBs Dez Brown (621 yards, 6 TD) and JD Brooks (469 yards, 12 TD) along with QB Gionni Williams, who is actually leading the team in rushing with 777 yards with 5 TDs. Not too many teams have been able to throw that many quality backs at Lanier.
"The offensive line has really been a dominant unit the last month and has gotten a lot better this year in my opinion. In the last three weeks, for instance, we rushed for over 1,000 yards in the last three ball games. The fact is that they just kind of started to gel together along with new offensive line coach, Coach Bruce Figgins, and that has contributed a lot to our success.”
THE REAL O-LINE FINALLY STEPPED FORWARD
"Early on we were still trying to figure out who we were and I feel we've done that throughout the season. It's been balance in the offense, and we're still running the ball heavily, especially with the offensive line leading the way. But we've also been able to throw the ball as well because of our running the game and how good the line has played.
"We’re playing six guys mainly in the five spots with (Georgia Tech-commit) Jordan Williams, of course. We have Cedric Nicely at left tackle, who is a Division I guy also, and we have a three-man rotation at guard -- Lemuel Gayle, Dorean Whitehead, Michael Gosa -- and sophomore Elijah Ruiz at center, who I think will also be a Division I guy when it’s all over. The interesting thing is that it is still a young group overall that I think is going to continue to get better over the years.”
UNSTOPPABLE FORCE, MEET IMMOVABLE WALL
“Our line against their defensive front is probably the key matchup, you're right. Whichever group wins that battle probably wins the game. I just described three large human beings that play on our offensive line; Lanier has the same thing on their defensive line and is probably the largest we’ve faced all year, so it is definitely going to be one of those trenches kinds of ball games. All you can do is try and hold them down because if you try to double-team one guy you're going to free up another so we’re just going to have to execute what we do and rely on our guys playing as a unit.”
RED ELEPHANTS' BACKFIELD AS SIMPLE AS UNO, DOS, TRES...
“Having three guys like we do, I think that is a way that maybe some other teams have not been able to come at them, for sure. The fact that you can't just focus on one guy and they have to prepare for two or three guys should help us. We rotate them in and out a lot so they’re usually fresh. But I think we’re going to have to have some success throwing the ball. I’m sure they’re going to load up the box. Gionni’s made steady improvement in the passing game throwing over the top and we’re going to have to work that into the mix against them and make some plays downfield.”
Senior running back Dez Brown [77 car., 621 yards, 2 TD]
Considering how last year went, what has been the difference for the team this year as a whole?
"I just think this year collectively we have found that chemistry we needed as a team. Last year we had new coaches, a new system, and it just took a while for everybody to get on the same page. The coaches just kept selling to us that this was going to work and eventually we all started to believe that it would and we just started to all go along for the ride with Coach Webb and the coaches."
How big was that Mary Persons win to open the season in setting the tone for this season?
“It was huge. We came in telling ourselves that if we could beat Mary Persons we could beat anybody on our schedule. As a team, I thought we played lights out for four quarters. When that game was over you could see the confidence on the team was a lot different than anything we had seen last year.”
During this three-game win streak, y’all have just been running the ball down the other team's throats. What is the feeling like when you know you can have that kind of physical dominance over your opponent?
“It's been very satisfying. Teams have thrown a lot of different looks and a lot of different fronts at us and still, we've been able to have that kind of success. It's a lot of fun when you know that you can have that kind of dominance and they can't stop you. We feel like we're a three- or even a four-headed monster back there and we're all excited about being able to get in and keep it going.”
How good is the offensive line in front of you and Gionni and JD, and can they get better?
“They are tremendous and they just give so much effort on every play. They play nasty but what's even more interesting is that they’re still a young group. We're pretty much going to have everybody back except for Jordan and Alex (Salcido) and for them to show that they can already dominate like they do is a lot of fun to see and play behind. The last three games with over 1,000 rushing yards, those guys are killing it upfront.”
Senior offensive lineman Jordan Williams (Georgia Tech-commit) [6-foot-6, 300 lbs]
What do you think has been the key to the team’s turnaround this year?
“Last year we kind of just had to feel out a new coaching staff. Now that we've gone through an off-season and bonded and gotten to know them and they know us I think you're seeing that we've come together as a team and it’s showing on the field.”
Your group up front has been as dominating as any in the state over the last month. How satisfying is it to see the success come together like this?
“It's nice to see the kind of success that we've had this year. The last few years the offensive line was kind of a struggle overall and now to see us punishing people and seeing the guys behind us have a lot of success is very satisfying.”
How much has Coach Figgins meant to the development of the line?
“(Coach Figgins) probably pushes us harder than any coach that we have here, especially on the practice field. If we're not showing the effort that he wants he'll let us know and does everything he can to bring it out of us. We have really improved a lot in my opinion.”
The offense has transformed into a power rushing attack instead of a spread passing attack the last two years. Is that more fun as a lineman?
“Seeing that we don't have to throw the ball as much that's a big change. We used to throw the ball a lot. Now we can just pound it on the ground and we can really show what our offensive line is capable of and what our running backs can do. They're starting to make a name for themselves as well and that’s fun to be a part of and watch.”