Despite everything that has occurred in 2020, Week 1 of the high school football season did indeed take place, and with it came some eye-opening performances.
Here are five things we learned from Friday:
1. Cherokee Bluff looks ready for prime time
It was known that Cherokee Bluff entered the 2020 season with plenty of talent and experience. On Friday night, the Bears proved that in their third season as a program, they're ready to put that potential to good use. Cherokee Bluff dominated Johnson 44-0 to start the season 1-0 for the first time in school history. While the Knights are a team looking to rebuild under a first-year head coach, it was the sheer explosiveness with which the Bears performed the rout that opened eyes. The 44-0 score was achieved by halftime, with Cherokee Bluff cruising through a running clock in the second half. New quarterback Sebastian Irons looked sharp, going 9-10 with three touchdowns, the last one coming on a circus catch by receiver Jaylon Justice on a hail mary as the first half expired. The Bears still have a long road ahead to make their first-ever playoff appearance, but it seems like a task they are ready for after Friday night.
2. Gainesville special teams could be its secret ingredient
There were plenty of highlights to take away from Gainesville's dominating 49-23 opening win at Stockbridge Friday night. Sophomore running back Naim Cheeks had an outstanding night, and the Red Elephants' defense settled in nicely after having to adapt to the Tigers' triple-option offense. The highlight that most didn't expect to be talking about after the game was the performance of the Gainesville special teams. The Red Elephants blocked a staggering three punts on the night, with two of them being returned for touchdowns that changed the tide of the game. While they didn't prove necessary for the win (Gainesville still outscored Stockbridge by 12 without the special teams touchdowns), it did showcase a unit that could provide Gainesville with exactly the type of edge that could make a big difference in key games down the road, especially as the team transitions to the state's highest classification.
3. White County flexes its muscles
White County enters 2020 looking for the program's first-ever region championship and after Friday night, it's not unreasonable to call them the way-too-early favorite in Region 7-3A. The Warriors hammered Stephens County 44-6 behind a stifling defense and a great performance from senior quarterback J. Ben Haynes. Haynes threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 59 yards and two scores as the White County offense racked up more than 500 yards. The Indians, meanwhile, could only muster 150 yards. While there's still plenty of football between now and region play, the Warriors have to feel good about their region chances after two of last season's top teams in 7-3A, North Hall and Dawson County, both lost their season openers Friday. If they can continue the level of play they displayed Friday night, White County's ceiling could be as high as Yonah Mountain.
4. Habersham Central goes to the ground game
Head coach Benji Harrison's teams have often been known for their potent passing attacks. He may have different plans for this year's Habersham Central team. It was a brutal running game that led the Raiders to an impressive 27-6 win over Madison County Friday night. The leader in the backfield was senior running back Jackson Cloatre, who finished with 175 yards and a touchdown as Habersham ground out last year's Class 4A state quarterfinalists. Right behind him was Duke-commit Joshua Pickett who made the move this offseason from receiver to quarterback and added another 83 yards and a touchdown to the Raiders' totals. There were other strong performances for Habersham, including a defense that didn't allow a point from Madison County until the final minute with the game well in hand, but if their ground game can be as potent as they teased Friday, they may have a chance to be a strong player in a loaded Region 8-6A.
5. Despite loss, Renard looks ready to lead Flowery Branch offense
Flowery Branch head coach Ben Hall said this Summer that quarterback David Renard was ready to break out in 2020. Even though the Falcons lost to St. Pius X 38-28 in the Corky Kell Classic Friday night, Renard showed that his coach may be right. The junior was often asked just to manage games as a sophomore in 2019 as the Falcons were led by a strong rushing game and defense. Against St. Pius, however, Renard showed the ability to lead the unit, as he went 16-of-26 for more than 270 yards passing with two touchdowns to one interception. He also ran for 29 yards including a figure-eight run through the Golden Lions defense for a touchdown on the final play of the first half. As Flowery Branch looks to retool a defensive unit that lost several key starters from last year, Renard may provide some offensive potency that can help that unit along through the rest of the non-region slate.