Wednesday September 27th, 2023 4:01AM

Football: Niblett, Red Elephants balancing patience, playoff immediacy

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Josh Niblett is not a patient person. He admits it.

“Not even a little bit,” the Gainesville football coach said this week as he prepared his Red Elephants for their first second-round playoff game since 2015.

Gainesville (11-0) plays host to South Paulding (8-3) at City Park Stadium on Friday in the Class 6A playoffs, eyeing its first trip to the quarterfinals since 2014.

Niblett was lured to Gainesville from Alabama powerhouse Hoover High with the direct intent of bringing the state’s third-winningest program back to prominence. Most people felt it might take a year or so, including Niblett -- at first.

“When you're trying to change the culture somewhere, you have to find out who wants to be here, what you have as far as the roster, and get everyone to buy into what you’re trying to do. That usually takes some time,” he said. 

“How you look at your own team is different because you have to be realistic but at the same time encouraging to help them improve each day. I expected it to take a little time, but we all want to win and see improvement as fast as we can -- especially me. I’m not a patient person.

“But this group of kids impressed me from the beginning. They really bought into what we wanted to do and the changes we were going to make. They wanted to get better and win. The credit goes to them for their hard work to get where they are now.”

Rifling through the history of both programs, the Red Elephants are one of the more established programs in the state. However, last week’s first-round win over Sprayberry (51-21) was the first playoff win for a Gainesville group that had been just 16-16 over the past three seasons. South Paulding, which did not open until 2006, is into the playoffs for just its sixth time in history and has never advanced past the second round (0-3).

It’s an interesting matchup that will feature a pair of top-10 offenses and two of the best running backs in Class 6A. Gainesville senior Naim Cheeks is sixth in 6A in rushing with 1,305 yards and 15 TD. The Spartans counter with senior Jamarion Wilcox, who leads 6A with 2,059 yards and a whopping 29 TDs rushing on the season. 

Overall, the Red Elephants are sixth in offense (39.1 points/game) and South Paulding is 10th (398, 36.1 ppg).

Niblett almost gushed over the prospect of what could be an old-fashioned smash-mouth game.

“That’s probably going to be the key for both teams, stopping the other guys' running game,” Niblett said. “Naim has a little of everything. He’s elusive but can run you over. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. I think he’s one of the best in the state when you look at the whole picture.

“(Wilcox) is an SEC-caliber running back. He is a load to stop. In the playoffs, you have to be able to run the ball, and you have to be able to stop the run. It might be just that simple (in this one).”

The difference may be on the defensive side. Gainesville is 5th in Class 6A, allowing just 12.0 ppg. The Spartans are 42nd out of 57 teams giving up 29.0 ppg.

But South Paulding has scored 28 or more 9 times in 2022 and is averaging over 310 yards/game and 175 yards/game on the ground behind Wilcox. They try to -- and have - outscore their opposition. Games involving the Spartans average over 65 total points.

The Red Elephants have not allowed more than 23 in any game this season. They have forced 13 turnovers to go with 36 TFL.

Something may have to give.

But Niblett says despite back-to-back games of scoring 51 points each and giving up just 21 total points, he is still waiting for that “best game” from his squad.

“I feel like we’ve played well over the past three games or so, but we gave up some explosive long passes (on defense) last week and still too many penalties,” he said. “We’re trying to correct both of those because the deeper you go the better the competition gets, and you can’t make those kinds of mistakes. I don't feel we've played our best game yet, which means there is still plenty of room to get better.

“We’re going to have to score some points. (South Paulding is) big up front. Their quarterback (senior Kasen Weisman: 131-for-205, 1,756 yards, 63.9%, 15 TD, 9 INT passing; 42-242 yards, 5.8 ypc, 3 TD rushing) can throw it and run it. He doesn’t make too many bad decisions. They also have two or three really good receivers.

“We’re going to have to make them one-dimensional on offense. We did a good job of that last week [they held Sprayberry to just 35 yards on the ground] and will need to do that again.”

Niblett believes that his group is close to turning the final corner. Fans want to talk beyond Friday. Niblett says they aren’t listening.

“I hear what people say, but the only thing that matters is this week. We won’t talk about future playoff games or state titles or anything until after the semifinals -- if we can get there,” he said. “I like our guys' mental disposition right now. They believe in what we’re doing, and they believe in themselves. That’s a huge part of this.

“But you can’t be talking about anything other than the moment at hand. I just want an invitation to the next round, and you have to earn that invitation. The way you get one is by focusing on where you are at right now.”

(Games listed by classification, highest to lowest, in alphabetical order of visiting team)
(All games kickoff at 7:30 p.m. unless otherwise indicated)
(Area teams listed in BOLD)


Class 7A
Walton (Region 5, Seed 2) at Buford (R8, S1)

Class 6A
South Paulding (R5, S2) at Gainesville (R8, S1)
North Forsyth (R8, S2) at Langston Hughes (R5, S1)

Class 2A
Union County (R8, S3) at South Atlanta (R6, S1)

Class A Division 1
Social Circle (R5, S2) at Rabun County (R8, S1)

GAPPS 11-man
Lanier Christian (R1, S3) at Cherokee Christian (R1, S1) 

  • Associated Categories: Sports, High School Sports, Friday Game Night
  • Associated Tags: High school football, Gainesville football
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