Friday March 31st, 2023 11:43PM

ICYMI: Underrated Red Elephants defense may hold the key to title run

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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GAINESVILLE, Ga — With all the hype surrounding Gainesville’s hire of former Hoover, Ala., coach Josh Niblett during the offseason, the Red Elephants have been walking the walk during the regular season and now into the Class 6A playoffs.

The talk most of the season has been about an explosive offense built around playmakers like quarterback Baxter Wright, running back Naim Cheeks, tight end Sky Niblett, and receivers Darius Cannon, Tre Reece, and Travien Watson. That group has powered a unit averaging 40.1 points/game, the fifth-best in program history.

But the key to the Red Elephants’ best playoff run since 2013 -- Deshaun Watson’s final season at Gainesville -- may be one of the state’s most underrated and best-kept secrets.

The Gainesville defense has been just as explosive, mainly by blowing up opposing offenses’ game plans. The Red Elephants have allowed just 188 points (14.46 ppg), which statistically is the best since the 2009 Red Elephants’ squad surrendered just 132 total points in 15 games (8.8 ppg) in a run to the Class 3A state championship game.

Gainesville (13-0) takes on Roswell (12-1) on Friday in the Class 6A semifinals. Kickoff is slated for 8 p.m. at McEachern Stadium in Powder Springs.

In each of the first three weeks of the playoffs, the Gainesville defense faced powerful rushing attacks, including two of the top three running backs in Class 6A. Each team came in, averaging over 200 yards/game. Each left managing less than their season average, and two left City Park Stadium unable to crack the 100-yard plateau.

Being in the opposing backfield as much as the offense has been the secret sauce. The Red Elephants have a whopping 85 tackles for loss on the season (6.5 TFL/game), led by senior interior linemen Stacy Hopkins (13 TFL) and Jarrious Harris (11 TFL). Senior linebacker Jeremiah Telander has 10 TFLs as part of his team-leading 92 total tackles and team-leading 4 sacks.

Niblett has said each week, turning the opposing offense one-dimensional was the road to success. He also has challenged the group to force turnovers. They have 20 takeaways in 13 games.

He has been prophetic so far.

“We try to take away something from each team, whether it be the run game or the passing game, to make them one-dimensional. You can’t let good teams have both. So far, it has been the run game from the teams we have seen to this point,” Niblett said after a win over Houston County last week in the quarterfinals. “We gave up some big plays, but we made stops when we needed to make stops.”

A pair of turnovers in their second-round game against South Paulding helped the offense overcome a sluggish start to rally from a 7-0 deficit to a 28-7 lead in the third quarter of an eventual 42-21 victory over the Spartans. They held Ohio State-commit and Class 6A leading rusher Jamarion Wilcox to just 86 yards on 20 carries and no scores. Wilcox came into that game with over 2,000 yards and averaging 187 yards/game with 29 touchdowns.

“I asked the guys to get me two (turnovers), and they responded and have just been playing at a high level,” Niblett said after that game. “(Wilcox) is the real deal. But we wanted to take them out of their usual run game, and the guys did a great job of executing.”

In the quarterfinals against a high-flying Houston County offense, it was a pair of early 3-and-outs and two huge sacks that set the tone in what turned out to be a 49-35 victory. Houston County had come into that game averaging 43.4 ppg. The Red Elephants used a 35-point explosion, fueled by the defense holding the Bears scoreless for more than 15 minutes in the second and third quarters and forcing five consecutive punts.

Bears’ junior running back Ryan Taleb was third in 6A with 1,598 yards (133.1 yards/game) with 19 TD rushing coming into their Elite 8 showdown. He finished with 134 yards, but nearly 100 came in the fourth quarter after the Red Elephants had exploded for 42-14 and 49-21 leads.

Telander, a Tennessee-commit who transferred from North Hall during the offseason, said the key has been not to do too much as individuals. His opening-drive sack resembled a human cannonball as he leaped over the line at the snap to engulf Houston County quarterback Antwann Hill on a third-down stop.

“We have faced a great running back every week. We just try to take care of our responsibilities and not do too much; go to our gaps and fill the holes with some pop,” he said. “We like to try and set the tone early. We feed off the offense, and they feed off of us, and so far, it’s been working.”

The stats that jump off the sheet are the 19 different players that have recorded at least 1 TFL on the season. The damage can come from anyone at any time, from any spot on the field.

The 35 points by Houston County was the most against the Red Elephants this season, and they also surrendered a season-high 546 total yards as Hill threw for nearly 400 yards. But most of that came in the second half after Gainesville had built its big leads.

This week the Gainesville defense faces another powerful offense in Roswell. The Hornets are third in 6A, averaging 41.9 ppg. They have scored 545 points, which is second all-time in program history and average-wise is the best in their history.

Junior QB KJ Smith has thrown for 2,489 yards (3rd in 6A) with 31 TDs and 7 INTs on the season. They have five players with 19 or more catches, led by senior Christopher Elko (42 rec., 813 yards, 9 TD). Fellow senior Ethan Crite, however, is their game-breaker. Crite has 19 catches for 596 yards, a ridiculous 31.4 ypc average with 8 TDs. 

It also will be the third straight game for the Red Elephants to face a potential all-state running back. Junior Nykahi Davenport has pounded out 1,838 yards (153.2 yards/game) with 22 TDs and 12 100-yard games. He has been even more dangerous in the playoffs, with 668 yards through three games (222.7 yards/game).

Telander may once again be a key for the Red Elephants, who are looking for their first state championship game appearance since winning the 2012 Class 3A state title. Telander was such a force early in the Houston County game that the Bears adjusted their offense away from wherever he was lined up over the final three quarters.

“He’s a really good player, and we can move him around,” Niblett said. “He can play inside; we can walk him up off the edge; he’s just a really good athlete. He can be impactful from a lot of different spots.

“But we have a lot of guys right now that can have an impact. The guys around him do a really good job of getting to the football. The defensive linemen have done a really good job of moving around and making plays. We’re doing a good job of mixing our coverages up in the secondary. It’s just been a great team effort, I believe.”

Telander said fans still haven’t seen their best. 

“This group can be great. We still haven’t played our best game,” he said. “I feel like we still have something special coming. I really do.”

Records: Hornets (12-1, No. 1 seed Region 7-6A); Red Elephants (13-0, No. 1 seed Region 8-6A)
Last week: Roswell beat Thomas County Central, 42-34; Gainesville beat Houston County, 49-35.
Where: McEachern Stadium, Powder Springs
Radio: WDUN AM 55/102.9 FM WDUN
Time: 8 p.m.
The Statisticals: Gainesville leads the series 1-0. The Red Elephants won 14-6 in the 1985 Class 3A quarterfinals. This is Gainesville’s first semifinal berth since 2013, Deshaun Watson’s final season. The Hornets are into the semifinals for the first time since making back-to-back finals appearances in 2015-16. Roswell’s only loss came to Class 7A semifinalists Milton, 14-7, on the road. The winner will move on to the state championship game set for Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. at Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta. The winner will get the winner of the Hughes-Rome matchup.

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