Sunday June 16th, 2024 11:31PM

State finals preview: 'WEfense' could be the difference for Red Elephants

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter


Before you scramble to your bookshelf, you won’t find it in any dictionary. The word simply doesn’t exist.

Yet, it’s the mantra under which the Gainesville special teams has lived by in 2022. And they can give you a ready definition if you like: 

“Offense and defense coming together to create explosive plays and to be the difference in the game.”

That’s how Red Elephants special teams coordinator Riley Niblett described a philosophy designed to bring the “11 best players” together for what essentially is just a handful of plays each game.

“It’s something we talk about to end every single meeting, that we will be the difference (on Friday nights) and that’s what we work towards during the week,” Niblett said. “The quickest way to change a game is through that third phase.

“Our philosophy is that if you can’t start on WEfense, or what we call our special teams, then you can’t start on offense or defense. That creates value for players to create those opportunities. We want the best 11 guys that we can put out there, whether they are the star players or not.”

Those few “fourth down plays” can make or break teams -- on both sides. More often than not in 2022, Gainesville has used its special teams to break the will of its opponents.

The Red Elephants have blocked five kicks on the season (4 field goals, 1 punt) and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. Two of the blocked field goals denied teams a chance to build on momentum. All three of the returns for scores either ignited an offensive explosion or doused the flames of momentum for the other team. That’s not to mention the returns that set up short fields for the offense.

For the season, senior Darius Cannon has led a group that has piled up 911 kickoff return yards on 28 returns for an impressive 32.5 yard average. Cannon has been especially potent with 432 of those on just 9 returns for a whopping 48.0 yard average. Senior Tre Reece, with 255 yards on 7 kickoff returns (36.4 yards/return) has the other return for a touchdown.

Cannon's 96-yard return for a score against Roswell in the semifinals erased the Hornets opening quarter score and ignited what would become a 28-point explosion. They never trailed again.

“It was huge because everyone was nervous at first, and they scored fast,” Cannon said of his game-changing return against Roswell. “There was a big gap, and I just followed my guys. I knew they wouldn’t catch me.”

Gainesville head coach Josh Niblett had a word for it.

“Huge,” he said.

In the quarterfinals against Houston County, Reece snuffed out any comeback with a 95-yard return after the Bears had cut a 35-7 Gainesville lead to 42-21 in the third quarter. Against North Forsyth, in what was essentially the Region 8-6A title game, Cannon reignited a sluggish Red Elephants group with a 99-yard return to begin a 27-point burst to close out a 34-21 win.

But Riley Niblett said finding those “11 best” isn’t just plug in and go.

“We look for specific body types -- whether it’s the guy on the edge or the fullback blocker up the middle -- that we think will give us the best chance for success,” he said. “It begins with identifying the guys who we think can be successful and in what role. My job is to make sure those guys can do their jobs at a high level.”

The Red Elephants (14-0) will need everything they can use on Friday when they take on No. 1-ranked Hughes in the Class 6A championship game at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.

Most experts give the Panthers (14-0) the edge on both offense and defense. They lead the state in offense, all classes, averaging 54 points/game. They lead Class 6A in defense, surrendering just 149 points (10.6 ppg) on the season.

But special teams was what cost the Panthers their first state title in 2021, dropping a gut-wrenching 21-20 loss to Buford in last year’s title game. They missed an extra point and could not convert on a 35-yard field goal that was blocked as time expired.

This year, Hughes has converted just 75 of 90 extra points and is just 1-of-2 on field goals, a 44-yarder against East Paulding. The Panthers also have given up several long returns on special teams. North Forsyth had two long kickoff returns to set up scores in their second round matchup. But they also have speed to burn and twice this season they outraced the receiving team to open spots on short kickoffs.

Niblett is hoping their edge in special teams can be the difference. But he knows they will have to be locked in on every special teams play.

“Players make the coaches,” he said. “We feel we have two guys that are game-breakers but we have to be what we call ‘11-strong.’ If one guy misses an assignment it all breaks down. But I think we’ve done a really good job overall in creating those explosive plays.”

Kickers Eric Guerra (senior) and John White (junior) have made 62-of-70 PATs and Guerra has converted all three field goal attempts by the Red Elephants this season. But Guerra suffered a broken arm in the regular season finale against Jackson County and has been used primarily as the kickoff specialist in the playoffs. Gainesville has not attempted a field goal in the playoffs.

Guerra could hold a key with long kickoffs into the end zone, limiting a solid return team for the Panthers.

“Hughes has an explosive return group as well. I’ve seen film where teams have kicked it deep, pooched it, squibbed it, and (Hughes) still get long returns. Putting the ball in the end zone on kickoffs will be important,” Riley Niblett said.

Niblett is prepping his group with the idea they can be the difference in pulling the upset on Friday. But he said the entire team seems focused on completing their improbable run.

“If we want an opportunity to win the game, we have to be the difference on (WEfense),” he said. “From the moment we got here back in January, you could see how hungry these kids were to get better and win. You could see it in their eyes.

"These guys have worked hard to get here. We're excited for them to have this opportunity. Our job is help them achieve their goals. Hopefully we can finish this off on Friday on the biggest stage.”

(See a preview story on the Gainesville offense and their matchup with the Panthers' No. 1 defense.)

(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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