TIGER — He still wears the same number he did last year (14 if you’re wondering). He still sports the long-flowing hair. He always manages to have a smile when you see him.
But don’t let any of those similarities fool you when you watch Rabun County sophomore quarterback Gunner Stockton, the nation’s top-rated junior quarterback.
“Not even close to the same guy,” Shaw said this week as he and the Wildcats prepared for their Class 2A quarterfinals showdown with Thomasville on Friday.
In fact, that description could apply to the entire Wildcats roster.
“Gunner is bigger, faster, more experienced. Basically our entire group is like that,” Shaw said. “Overall we were a young team last year with a lot of guys, including Gunner, that was taking over from some big-time players. But they came into this season with a sense of getting better each day.
“This is nowhere near the same team that we were last year at this stage of the season. We’re very excited to see how this group finishes this year.”
At this same point last year, the Wildcats were preparing to take on a physical Fitzgerald team in the quarterfinals of the Class 2A playoffs. It did not go as planned as the Hurricanes beat up Rabun County in a 28-17 loss at home.
Shaw said that game has been a driving factor for the renewed focus on the bigger, faster, stronger theme they have taken in 2019.
“It wasn’t exactly how we envisioned that game and I think the kids saw what they needed to get better at as a result of that game,” he said. “They have really bought into doing all of those things. I think we’re much better prepared for the bigger teams (we’ll see) in the later rounds this year.”
That’s good because Rabun County (12-0) will take the longest road trip in the state in any quarterfinal matchup in any classification with a 325-mile trek to Thomasville near the Florida border.
While the current group of Wildcats may still be looking to make a name for themselves, experience may be on their side as well. It’s Rabun’s fourth trip to the quarterfinals in the past five seasons and they are looking for their second trip to the semifinals in the past three seasons. The Bulldogs have not advanced past the quarterfinals since 1993, though they did get to the quarterfinals in 2017.
“We have some guys still on the roster from our trip to the finals and a lot of guys from last year so we feel like we have a lot of experience at this level of the playoffs,” Shaw said. “I think having some experience at this stage can help, for sure.”
Which brings us back to Stockton. The Fitzgerald game in 2018 represented the biggest challenge to date for Stockton and an offense that was ranked No. 1 in Class 2A in 2018. They struggled early and often as Stockton was just 1 for 6 for 2 yards and the offense generated just 16 total yards into the second quarter. They never got untracked as Stockton finished the game 9 for 25 for 180 yards and one touchdown pass. But a rushing attack, which came in averaging 216 yards a game, managed just 17 yards on 18 carries, which included three sacks of Stockton.
Shaw said that was another lifetime ago, however.
“Like I said, Gunner is not the same as he was last year. Light-years ahead from that game,” he said. “That was probably the biggest game he had ever played in and he didn’t play his best game for sure. But (the Fitzgerald) defense had a lot to do with that.
“He’s played in three big games already this year (Bremen, Elbert County, Union County) and he’s played outstanding in all three of those. The offense has been good all year.”
The Wildcats come in as the fourth-rated offense and Stockton leads Class 2A in passing (3,146 yards, 41 TDs, 5 INTs) and has added 1,019 rushing with another 19 TDs. He has spread the ball around connecting with five different receivers for 27 or more catches and with seven different receivers for TDs this season.
But they appear to have slowed down in the playoffs. After averaging 48.3 ppg during the regular season, they are averaging just 36.0 ppg in the playoffs. Last week’s 34 points (in a 34-14 win over Toombs County) matched a season-low.
“People can look at numbers but the offense was really good last week,” Shaw said. “We had over 450 total yards; we were 6-of-6 in the red zone; we were 8-of-13 on third down. We just missed on some deep shots and that’s going to happen sometimes. I thought Gunner was as good as he’s been all season."
The Bulldogs defense should offer some opportunities. They are the worst of the eight teams left in Class 2A giving up 291 points (24.2 points per game). But they have produced 23 takeaways on the season.
“They are a much better defensive team than those numbers show,” Shaw said. “They’ve played a tough schedule. But we always feel good about our offense.”
The Bulldogs offense has been explosive at times (362 points, 30.1 ppg) but also has committed 24 turnovers. And It may be the Rabun defense that holds the key to just how far the Wildcats can advance. They have yielded the fourth-fewest points (129, 10.7 ppg) and have snagged 28 takeaways to give Rabun a plus-21 on turnover ratio so far in 2019.
“We put a huge emphasis in practice on getting takeaways,” Shaw said. “The defense has played lights out most of the season. The key has just been being aggressive and being prepared on what’s coming so we can put the guys in the right places to be successful.
Does Shaw worry about another playoff letdown as they try to get back to the semifinals for the second time in three seasons?
“Not at all,” he said. “Our expectations are the same every year: win titles. It gets tougher each round, as it should. But we feel we have built a program that can compete at this level every year.
“But for sure you have to play well when you get to this stage. Our guys experienced that last year. Fitzgerald played well and we were just a little bit off. That little bit can be the difference between winning and losing.
“Probably more than anything else we’ve focused on the little things more this year. Because of that I think this group is ready to take another step.”