UNITY CHRISTIAN’S FOOTBALL PROGRAM MIGHT BE ONE OF THE BEST-KEPT SECRETS in Rome and Floyd County. The team plays eight-man football in the GAPPS (Georgia Association of Private and Parochial Schools) association where over the last three years they have won a state title, reached the state semifinals, and reached the finals.
In last year’s final, Unity scored a late touchdown to take the lead against Sherwood Christian Academy only to watch Sherwood score a late touchdown. The Lions, refusing to give up, were tackled at the 12-yard line as time expired or else they might have scored another touchdown to take the lead.
“I think one thing that has happened here is that we’ve had a lot of success. This team has more wins than anybody else in the county or city over the last few years. We won a state championship three years ago, went to the semis two years ago and last year made it to the finals,” Unity coach David Humphreys says. “This team is used to winning. They’re an exciting group to watch. I’m just so proud of them, and they are working their tails off right now.”
One issue facing the Lions entering the 2023 season is that several key players from last year’s squad have departed, leaving the Lions with some big holes they need to fill, However, Unity also brings back some key players from last year’s squad.
“First off, we have our quarterback Evan Whiteside coming back. He rushed for more than 2,300 yards and accounted for 47 touchdowns between running and throwing,” Humphreys says. “He’s also only a junior.”
They also bring back Whiteside’s brother, Elliott, who plays center and nose guard.
“Elliott is a dang good ballplayer. He started last year, and he will be the anchor of our lines this year,” Humphreys says. “We do feel like our offensive and defensive lines will be one of our stronger position groups this year.”
Humphreys notes that senior Ben Rooke will be moving to tight end and linebacker this year a year after being a big contributor on both sides of the ball.
“Davis Blankenship started every game last year for us. He was another lineman that was kind of the surprise of the year last year because he was only a ninth grader,” Humphreys says. “From there we are pretty young. Ondreo Sawyer saw limited time at receiver and corner last year. He’s a very talented kid. Kyler Williams started at Holy Ground in the past couple of years. He’s an older kid that will help us at linebacker and receiver.”
Developing depth is also kind of a tough issue in eight-man football given that the rules in GAPPS limit eight-man teams to a roster of 20 players. Humphreys, who has coached at several schools over the last three decades, says the limit is a bit tough for him and forces him to change a few things.
“One of the big changes for me was practice. When you’re practicing with 20 players, you can’t do a three-hour practice,” he says. “I have to hold myself in check and not get too far out in front of these guys.”
Because of the large numbers of underclassmen Unity will need to step up, Humphreys notes it can be both fun and frustrating at the same time.
“First off you start off and you chew your fingernails as you see these guys. In a lot of places I’ve been you don’t expect ninth and 10th graders to hardly even practice. Here they get the opportunity of a lifetime. They get quality reps,” Humphreys says. “We get to watch their maturity. Typically, you think most ninth and 10th graders might be mentally inept because they have never been asked to do these things. These kids mature a lot faster than they would on other teams, and it’s fun to watch.”
Humphreys mentions a few teams to watch out for this year in GAPPS, including Sherwood Christian, Praise Academy, Vidalia Heritage, and Lafayette Christian. However, he also notes that with only 20 players on a roster, if a school can get a couple of move-in players, it can make a huge difference for the team.
“There will always be that team that shocks everybody. We played Praise Academy last year. They didn’t have a whole lot of players, but it was a dogfight the entire game,” he says.
As for what Unity needs to do to possibly make another deep run into the state playoffs, Humphreys says a few things could be key.
“The main thing we have to do is that we can’t look at the product. We just have to get better each and every week,” he says. “The one thing we can’t recover from is self-inflicted wounds. We can’t have penalties and can’t have turnovers. If we can minimize those, I think we will be fine. It may take a game or two to get our sea legs underneath us, but I think the group will do well.”