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Eagles believe region, state titles in reach

COVINGTON - Limit the mental mistakes. Always play hard. Win county championship. Win Region 8-AAA and Class AAA state title. Make no excuses.

These are the goals for the Eastside football team.

"We have worked this year with a purpose," Eastside head coach Rick Hurst said. "Not that we have not in the past, but this offseason, these seniors (have) dedicated this year to making a name for themselves in the region and the state."

Eastside finished last season at 7-3, a step up from the previous season's 5-5 and a vast improvement from Hurst's first year record of 0-10.

In order to improve on last year's success, the Eagles need to continue to play hard.

Also driving the Eastside players and staff this season was missing the playoffs by one game. The last time an Eastside football team played beyond the regular season was in 2001, when they lost to North Forsyth 28-0.

"Coming close to the playoffs last season has really motivated not only the players but the coaching staff," Hurst said. "We do not want to look back at the end of the year and talk about how good we could have been. Our focus has been on improving our record each year. That has not changed."

Even though Eastside's football team is moving down in classification, that does not mean the level of competition has gone down.

"I think moving down makes it tougher. Everyone expects us to be better because we played in AAAA for the last few years. Region 8-AAA is really tough. Stephens, Hart and Oconee County will all be hard to handle," Hurst said.

Even though they haven't taken their first region game snap, Hurst already likes his chance of making the playoffs compared to last season.

Since the top four teams make the playoffs and there are eight teams in the region, they have a 50 percent chance to making the playoffs.

Last year in Region 8-AAAA, there were 13 teams competing for the four playoffs spots.

In order for Eastside to continue to shine in Class AAA, it will have to find a way to open the running lanes and give quarterback Justin Wray some time when he throws.

Making that task even more difficult is the graduation of many of last year's offensive line.

"We have quality guys coming into those positions, but they lack experience," Hurst said." The potential is there to be better than last year, but they are really green. If they grow up in hurry, we will be able to move the football and score some points. Playing on Thursdays and Fridays are totally different, so those guys will have to mature early for us to be successful."

Two of the key linemen for the Eagles this year will be tackles James Johnson and Jarrett Hubbard.

When the Eagles have the ball they will stay with the same basic spread offense that has made them successful.

"We continue to run from the spread gun," Hurst said. "We want to maximize the number of times our athletes get the ball in space."

Defensively, the Eagles will play out of a 3-5 set. With defense oriented on stopping the run, the Eagles are going to count heavily on JaCorey Maddox and Hunter Parker.

"JaCorey Maddox will anchor our defensive line. Hunter Parker will be highly counted on to fill a void at linebacker, and Rashad Hill and Antarius Terrell will split time in the secondary," Hurst said.

On special teams, Yanrick Tinker will handle the kicking duties with Hill and Terrell taking care of returns most of the time.

"Rashad Hill and Antarius Terrell will return punts and kickoffs this season," Hurst said. "You may also see Justin back there from time to time."

The magic number for Tinker this year is 35. Hurst describes Tinker as very accurate until the kicks get a little long.

"He has to work on his consistency outside of 35 yards," Hurst said. "Inside of 35 he is very accurate and his strong leg will hopefully pin other teams deep on kick-offs."

Although Eastside is a very strong team with a lot of determination, the Eagles also have some weaknesses they have to protect. The main weak spots are things that cannot be coached - lack of experience and depth.

However, Hurst is hoping their team speed will be an equalizer in the end.

"Speed is a strength on both sides of the ball for us. If we can utilize it, it will be a factor in all the games that we play," he said.

"The new faces played some last year, but it was when games were in hand. Depth is also a concern. Our younger guys have to step up and fill in some two spots so that we are counting on so many folks going both ways."

Manny Fils can be reached at manny.fils@newtoncitizen.com.

SideBar: At a glance

Team: Eastside football

Coach: Rick Hurst (fourth season)

Last year's record: 7-3

Key returning starters: Justin Wray (QB), Broderick Alexander (RB), Anderico Bailey (WR), James Johnson (OL), JaCorey Maddox (DL), Rashad Hill (RB) and Antarius Terrell (WR)

First game: Thursday vs. Harris County at Homer Sharp Stadium, 7 p.m.