While state media and national recruiting sites made a pilgrimage to Memorial Stadium for Jefferson's season opener, the true biggest game of the season is this Friday at home against Flowery Branch.
The Falcons are Jefferson's first Region 8-AAAA opponent of the season and the result of the game will surely resonate throughout the rest of the season. Flowery Branch is currently 3-1 with its lone loss coming from a shootout with Gainesville. Last year, the Falcons were Region 8-AAAA runners-up with their only blemish in region play being a 40-10 loss to Jefferson.
With North Oconee, East Hall and Cedar Shoals all possessing losing records, all signs point to Friday being a must-win game for both squads. However, as of this week, no one's record matters according to Jefferson head coach Gene Cathcart.
I know they had a disappointing loss to a really good Gainesville team," Cathcart said. "But everyone starts over when you start region play. That loss to Gainesville, and frankly our wins, really don't get them any further or us any closer to being the No. 1 seed in the region, that all starts Friday night.
"Last year, we played exceptionally well against [Flowery Branch]. Those guys and North Oconee were teams that won playoff games and did a great job. We certainly know we have our work cut out for us this Friday."
Flowery Branch (3-1, 0-0 Region 8-AAAA) is led by a familiar face to Jefferson fans, head coach Ben Hall. Hall coached the Dragons from 2013-to-2016, leading them to region titles in 2014 and 2016. Since 2017, Hall has smoothly implemented his balanced offensive attack at Flowery Branch.
Leading that attack is quarterback David Renard. He's coming off a season in which he passed for 2,655 yards, ran for 467 yards and scored 28 total touchdowns. As a senior, he's even more of a hand full for defenses. Last week, Renard only needed 72 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead Flowery Branch to a 56-7 win over Hiram. That's because he's far from the Falcons only star on offense.
Flowery Branch has a flock of offensive weapons. Running backs Malik Dryden and Myles Ivey are perhaps the best rushing duo the Dragons will face all year. Both soared over 100 rushing yards last week, while scoring two touchdowns each. Despite losing it's four leading receivers, Flowery Branch is still productive in the passing game. Sophomore Seth Larson has stepped up with several big plays in the passing game this year, including a 40-yard catch against Hiram. Senior Jaheim Hayes is another receiver Jefferson has to contend with.
"Flowery Branch is well coached, Ben [Hall] and his staff do an incredible job," Cathcart said. "[David] Renard is a returning all-region quarterback and a great player. They've really got some really physical linemen and they run the football very well. So, they're balanced which makes them tough to defend... Certainly, Rabun County in their own right is an outstanding offensive team, but this Flowery Branch team is every bit as high profile and high scoring as that bunch."
"It's not just the ability to claim you'e balanced, it's the ability to do what needs to be done in that moment. When they have to throw the football, they're able to. When they have to run the football, they're able to run the football. They're most comfortable dictating which one they do. A sign of a good team is when folks know what you have to try to do and you're still able to do it. They've moved the ball, they're averaging maybe 37 points per game. They only give up around 17 points a game."
Jefferson (4-0, 0-0 Region 8-AAAA) is coming off an off-week which interrupted a streak of three-straight lopsided victories. The Dragons' last outing was a 41-14 win over a pass-happy Mountain View squad from Class AAAAAAA. They also have a 42-7 win over Central Gwinnett from Class AAAAAA under their belts.
The box scores make it seem like Jefferson has everything figured out, but Cathcart still spotted areas the team needed to clean up in the off-week.
"The largest room in the world is the room for improvement, it's also the one the fewest people are willing to go into," he said. "We certainly tried to improve this week on ball security and cutting down on penalties. There were plenty of things to improve on and certainly we know the challenges this week holds.
"It'll be good to be at home, it'll be good to play again. Open weeks are great for healing up, but when you're playing well you really want to get back out there and continue to play and get better each week. [Off week] was good in a lot of ways, but we're excited to get back on the field."
Flowery Branch at Jefferson
Who: Flowery Branch at Jefferson (Memorial Stadium)
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Records: Jefferson 4-0, Flowery Branch 3-1
Coaches: Gene Cathcart, Jefferson (fifth season at Jefferson, 44-9; 17th season overall 153-51); Ben Hall, Flowery Branch (fifth season at Flowery Branch, 36-14; ninth season overall, 80-22)
What else: Flowery Branch head coach ben Hall previous coached at Jefferson from 2013-to-2016. He led the Dragons to a 44-8 record and a pair of Region Championships, one in Region 8-AAA and another in Region 8-AAAA. In Hall's last season, Jefferson ventured to the state semi-finals, but came up short in a rematch to Thompson... Friday will be Hall's first trip back to Jefferson since 2017. When he left Jefferson for Flowery Branch, the Dragons were in the middle of a home-and-home non-region series with the Falcons. Gene Cathcart's Dragons defeated Hall's Falcons 35-29.