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Tuesday February 7th, 2023 3:57PM

State finals preview: GHS offense offers Hughes its toughest test yet

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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The old sports battle cry, “You ain’t seen us!” usually is followed by a smirk, a chuckle, and a slow and steady shaking of the head by fans, especially on the eve of huge matchups between highly-touted teams.

The high-powered Tennessee offense was a prime example leading up to its showdown with Georgia earlier this season. Yes, the Vols came in averaging over 50 points/game. No, the Dogs defense had not seen anyone like that to that point.

The problem for the Vols was they hadn’t seen a DEFENSE like Georgia’s. We all know how that ended up.

That brings us to Gainesville’s showdown with Hughes for the Class 6A title on Friday at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.

The Panthers defense is ranked No. 1 in Class 6A (149 points, 10.6 ppg). They have not allowed more than 28 in any game this season. They have three shutouts. They are coming off a 42-3 thrashing of Rome in the semifinals.

The Red Elephants offense will represent the most explosive unit the Panthers (14-0) have faced this season. Gainesville (14-0) comes in third in Class 6A in offense (557, 39.79 ppg) but has upped that average to 44.25 ppg in the playoffs.

It also will be the sternest test yet for the Gainesville offense, which has not faced a unit that tough all season. The highest-rated defenses the Red Elephants have faced are Marist (14th in Class 6A) in their season-opener, and Shiloh (15th) in their eighth game of the season.

However, upon even further inspection, the Panthers have not faced an offense higher than sixth in Class 6A. The four playoff offenses they have faced were 31st River Ridge, 19th North Forsyth, seventh Woodward Academy, and Rome last week, who came in sixth in Class 6A.

In fact, Rome is the highest-rated offense Hughes has faced all season, which includes Class 7A McEachern. The Panthers dispatched the Indians 47-21 in the second game of the season. They have only faced two top-10 offenses since.

Gainesville coach Josh Niblett has said all year they don’t call plays but instead call players. And Gainesville has playmakers all over the field.

Junior quarterback Baxter Wright has completed 73.6 percent of his passes for 3,152 yards, good for fourth in Class 6A. He has tossed 38 TDs compared to just 4 INTs on the season.

After beating Houston County 49-35 in the quarterfinals, Niblett said Wright has blossomed over the course of the season.

“He was learning the offense early (in the season). Our offense isn’t easy,” Niblett said during the playoffs. “He’s done a good job of putting the ball where it needs to be and giving guys a chance to go make plays.”

Senior running back Naim Cheeks has 1,775 yards rushing, third-best in Class 6A, with 20 touchdowns. He has amassed just over 700 yards in the playoffs, including a pair of 200-yard games. Wright is second on the team with 498 yards rushing, averaging nearly 6 yards/carry to help keep defenses honest.

Niblett called Cheeks one of the state’s most versatile players.

“He can run guys over, he can run around them, and he can catch the ball. Naim gets a lot of yards after contact. He’s like a rubber band out there just bouncing off of people,” Niblett said after their win over South Paulding. “I feel like he’s one of the best players in the state because can do so many things.”

Wright also has a plethora of weapons in the passing game. Junior Travien Watson leads the team with 46 catches (623 yards, 4 TD) while senior Darius Cannon (40 receptions) leads in yards with 730 to go with 9 TDs. Senior Tre Reece (41 rec., 665 yards) is second in catches and yards and leads the team with 12 TD receptions.

“These guys love to play football and it’s so fun to play with these guys,” said Cannon, who transferred to Gainesville from White County following the 2021 season. Cannon helped keep the Hornets at bay last week with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, his second return TD on the season.

“It just kind of opened up and I just followed my guys. That was huge for the momentum,” he said.

Tight end Sky Niblett (30 rec., 450 yards, 12 TD) has done a lot of the over-the-middle dirty work while Cheeks offers another threat out of the backfield with 29 catches for 541 yards and 3 TDs on the season.

The Red Elephants passing game vs. the Hughes secondary may be where things are won or lost. The Panthers have picked off 17 passes, including 7 in their four playoff games, as part of their 27 total takeaways on the season.

Wright felt a big key will just be for them to be themselves. The Red Elephants have committed just 1 turnover in the playoffs.

“We just have to play our game,” Wright said after the Roswell game. “We’ve been underdogs probably every game in the playoffs. We just need to focus on ourselves.”

Cannon said belief in the system will play a role.

“We just need to trust in the coaches’ scheme and do our jobs. We still haven’t played our best game and we’re always trying to improve. I think we’ll be ready to go (by Friday)," he said.

(See a preview story on the Gainesville defense and its matchup with the state's leading offense.)


Class 6A state championship game
Who: No. 3-ranked Gainesville vs. No. 1-ranked Hughes, AKA Langston-Hughes
When: Friday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m.
Where: Center Parc Stadium at Georgia State Stadium (Turner Field)
Radio Coverage: 6:35ish p.m. on AM 550/FM 102.9 WDUN (Judd Hickinbotham (PXP) and Dan Kiley (Color) on the call)

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  • Associated Tags: High school football, Gainesville football
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