Bulldogs clash with 'Bama foe once again

Unlike most high school football teams playing an out-of-state opponent, North Gwinnett won't be facing total strangers when it welcomes Prattville to Suwanee for the second game of the National Football Challenge on Saturday.

The Bulldog seniors probably remember the Lions all too well from their preseason scrimmage in Alabama prior to the 2007 season.

But the lopsided loss to the Lions proved to be an important building block for North's run to a Class AAAAA state runner-up finish.

And coach Bob Sphire hopes his team can gain a similar benefit with Saturday's matchup in the regular season opener in front of what figures to be a playoff-type crowd and a regional cable television audience.

"That (scrimmage two years ago) exposed every weakness we had and revealed some strengths we didn't know we had," Sphire said.

"That's exactly what we hope to take away from this one. Now, we want to win the football game, don't get me wrong. But I'm a realist, too."

The reality staring the Bulldogs in the face is a challenging one.

The visiting Lions enter Saturday's game fresh off giving Jamey Dubose an Alabama Class AAAAAA state championship - the team's third straight - in his first season as head coach last season.

Prattville, which has won 44 of its last 45 games, also features at least two marquee players.

Quarterback Sam Gibson has committed to LSU, while safety Nick Perry will be joining North offensive linemen Austin Shepherd and Ju'Wuan James as freshmen at Alabama next year.

"They've got it going on, man," Sphire said. "Their quarterback Gibson is headed to LSU and he's an incredible athlete - a real player. Their defense has two incredible linebackers in the Lee brothers (Cory and Qushaun) and Nick Perry at safety. But we're in the ring, we might as well fight."

By contrast, the Bulldogs are filling some holes left by graduation from last year's 10-3 team that went to the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals.

While Shepherd and James anchor a massive offensive line, North will also be breaking in new starters at nearly every offensive skill position.

Sphire admits it may force him and his staff to make a few adjustments to help the newcomers get their feet wet.

"Our system has got enough flexibility to where we can do some different things, but it's still our system," Sphire said. "That said, Raahmil Brantley and Joe Jones played some last year and (C.J.) Uzomah played at receiver, but (senior receiver) Cordero Dixon is the only one with extensive experience at a skill position.

"So, do we maybe need to keep things more basic (Saturday)? It's not really in my nature, but we might have to take that into consideration."

Despite the Bulldogs having so many new starters, Dubose is still very wary of them, and with good reason.

Brantley averaged nearly 6 yards per carry last year, while Dixon grabbed 15 receptions and Uzomah displayed his athleticism as receiver, as well as getting few snaps off the bench.

"We know they've got a great offensive line," Dubose said. "We saw them at 7-on-7 camp this summer, and they've got a lot of firepower. ... The key to the game is their big guys up front not controlling our defense up front.

"But that's why we play games like this - to get us ready. It's not a make or break game, but you can measure where you're at. It puts us in an environment on the road and prepares us for the rest of the season."


Prattville Lions

Coach: Jamey Dubose

2008 record: 13-1

Last week: Did not play

North Gwinnett Bulldogs (8-AAAAA)

Coach: Bob Sphire

2008 record: 10-3

Last week: Did not play

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.


Last meeting: First regular season meeting

Directions to North Gwinnett High School: From I-85, go west on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road until it becomes Suwanee Dam Road. School is on the right.