When West Forsyth’s football team walked onto their home field for their scrimmage against Central Gwinnett on Friday, so much felt familiar to a Friday night regular season game, from the pads they had on to the noise coming from the stands.
But there was one noticeable thing missing from that vaguely similar atmosphere — a score, or an official one, at least.
With the scoreboard off, the Wolverines aimed to treat the game more like a practice. When the Black Knights got off to a hot offensive start, though, that mindset may have taken too much of a hold.
“Once they scored a couple of times, I think some of our kids were like, ‘Ah, it's just a scrimmage,’” West coach Shawn Cahill said. “I think that kind of got into our head a little bit. That's one thing that we do have to work on for certain, the sense of urgency that we have to play with. Being young, we can't take a play off.”
West’s offense was shut out at the half, but found ways to score late. When it was all over, though, Central Gwinnett came away with a 34-14 win, but for the Wolverines, it was all a learning experience.
“I think we came out here thinking we were going to be better than them,” linebacker Jack Hughes said. “They showed us that we can't come out here doing that. We've just got to bring the team together as one.”
West’s defense, starting seven players with no varsity experience, struggled right from the opening drive, with Central Gwinnett’s first series consisting of chunk play after chunk play. With the help of a seven-yard tackle for loss from Eli Orr, the Wolverines forced fourth down near their goal line, but Black Knights quarterback Skylar Adams connected on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Daejon Reynolds for a 7-0 lead.
Reynolds, a four-star college recruit, found ways to get open all night.
“He is the real deal,” Cahill said. “You come right out of the gate and see one of the best you're going to see.”
While West’s offense struggled to get into gear, Central Gwinnett’s attack continued its success, scoring on its first three drives of the game. Power running back Justin Wilkins plowed through West defenders and eventually scored a two-yard touchdown with 3:12 left in the first quarter.
A little more than a minute later, West quarterback Blake Whitfield, who is coming off a season-ending injury from last year, was intercepted for another Central Gwinnett score from 46 yards out to increase its lead to a commanding 20-0.
“Walking down tonight, Blake said, ‘It’s been 322 days, coach, since I've played,’” Cahill said. “He had some rust to get off of him ... He's going to get better. He's going to watch film and he's going to see his mistakes and he's going to learn from them.”
But the interceptions weren’t the only way the Wolverines hurt themselves early. Orr couldn’t corral a would-be pick thrown his way, and a dropped pass ended a once-promising West drive to midfield. Early in the second quarter, Reynolds hauled in his second touchdown of the night from 35 yards out, and at halftime, West was in a 27-0 hole.
Drew Southern, who took over the starting quarterback role in Whitfield’s absence last year, saw plenty of action on the field on Friday. Early in the first half, he lined up behind Whitfield as a running back. As a slot receiver, Southern caught West’s first touchdown with 11:39 left in the third, a 58-yard catch and run. Late in the third, he took over under center, leading the Wolverines to their second touchdown, which came from a 1-yard Emi Gonzalez run.
With the running back corps being thinner than previously anticipated, Southern could see time on the field regularly, even if it’s not at quarterback.
“He knows the offense, so he can step in and do it,” Cahill said. “He’s just a competitor. I thought he did a good job of really practicing the (running back) position for two and a half days, really.”
While Friday night was not West’s best showing, the optimism for the season hasn’t faded. The Wolverines are confident they’ll be ready for their season opener in two weeks.
“I think we just need to learn to work better as a team,” Hughes said. “I think that's going to come Monday -- we've got great captains that are going to bring the team together. I think we'll be fine.”