Class AA spring football: New coach, same philosophy at Rabun County

After the conclusion of the 2018 football season, Lee Shaw sent shockwaves across the state when he suddenly resigned from his post at Rabun County, where he’d spent the previous seven seasons compiling a 70-17 record with five consecutive Region 8-AA titles and an appearance in the 2017 AA championship game.

Before Shaw arrived, the Wildcats hadn’t a winning season since 2000 or a region title since 1998. 

To say the Wildcats have some big shoes to fill moving forward would be an understatement. But they couldn’t have a better Shaw protégé to take his place than his oldest son, Jaybo Shaw.

On May 1, Jaybo will hold his first spring practice as coach of the Wildcats, with the session concluding on May 17 with an intrasquad scrimmage. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be open to fans.

Jaybo, who also takes over as Rabun County’s athletic director, has served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator the past three seasons — the same up-tempo, spread offense that became the staple of Lee Shaw-coached teams.

“We try to snap the ball as many times in a game, as fast as we can, with multiple people touching the ball so the defense can’t key in on one guy,” Jaybo said of the offensive philosophy.

Prior to running Rabun County’s offense, Jaybo served as an assistant on the staffs of his alma mater Georgia Southern — where he quarterbacked the Eagles — Army and Western Carolina.

When Lee Shaw stepped away, he didn’t leave the cupboard empty. The Wildcats have six returning starters on offense and seven on defense.  They also have quarterback Gunner Stockton to run the offense. Last season as a freshman, he helped guide the Wildcats to an 11-2 record and a trip to the quarterfinals, where they lost 28-17 to Fitzgerald. 

Stockton threw for 2,917 yards on 190-of-291 passing with 34 touchdowns to six interceptions. He also rushed for 709 yards and 17 touchdowns on 105 carries. At 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, he’s one of the most coveted underclassman signal callers in the country, holding offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and South Carolina among others.

“We’re expecting huge things from him this season,” Jaybo said. “He’s a natural leader and you know what you’re going to get from him on Friday nights. Quarterbacks like him don’t come around often.”

In addition to Stockton, Jaybo said the Wildcats have a good senior class returning — 16 according to their roster found on MaxPreps. They’ll be replacing three starting linemen on each side of the ball, so finding starters there will be a key focus of the offseason.

On offense, the Wildcats also lose leading receiver — and top defensive back — Austin Jones, who signed with Furman, and center Shawn Lovell.

“Those spots are huge,” Jaybo said.

The Wildcats have depth at receiver, however, led by seniors Braxton Lee Hicks, Dawson Lathan and Garrett Bragg, a transfer from Clarksville (Tenn.) who will start two ways, and juniors Sutton Jones and Hunter Moore.

On the offensive line, seniors Bear Old and Brock Thompson, and juniors Chris Thompson and Nolan Crane are vying for spots. Senior Will Hightower will return as a three-year starter.

The defensive line will turn to seniors Logan Owens and Phillip Roberson, and juniors Will McGraw and Crane.

With the program being passed down from father to son, the transition is expected to run smoothly, with Jaybo ready to carry the torch — and the expectations that come with it.

“My dad built this place into what it is today as far as athletics here at Rabun County,” Jaybo said. “I step in knowing what to do to win at a high level. The biggest thing for me will be finding guys who can replace the three-, four-year starters from last year. We’re young in some spots and that happens with every program. It’s going to come down to who will step up and lead.”

With the Wildcats reaching at least the quarterfinals in each of the past four years, anything short of finishing the regular season in prime position for an AA championship will be considered an underachievement.

“We’re to the point now where are goals are pretty simple as far as what the expectation is,” Jaybo said. “When guys come in, they know (we’re aiming to) go undefeated at home, win region and go play for a state title. The taste of coming so close in 2017 when we played for state, and seeing how special of a run that was and how it propelled our program...it’s a driving force for our guys.”

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