Eastside defenders work on drills to stop the ball carrier during their summer workouts. (Staff photo: Manny Fils)
COVINGTON — Eastside’s defense is going to have to rise to the challenge if they hope to make the Eagles contenders for a playoff bid as they enter Region 4-AAAA this season.
The Eagles (5-5) allowed 266 points last year including a season-high 47 points against Monroe Area in the final game of the year.
“I didn’t feel like we were physical enough last year at times. I think that went back to our strength,” Eastside head coach Rick Hurst, who is starting his 10th year, said. “We’re not too big so we’re going to have to be quick. We’re going to have to be constantly on the move and blitz and do different things to confuse people. We have to try to make things happen and force people things into what they’re not used to doing.”
Another concern Hurst during the offseason was their poor tacking skills. But those concerns seemed to ease a little bit as he has seen a drastic change in their tacking and strength from the end of last season.
“I’ve seen it a little bit better in the scrimmages but I still don’t have that hammer guy that’s looking to lay it down,” Hurst said. “That’s what we have to have.”
A player that he feels could bring fear into the receivers coming across the middle is senior defensive back Taj Horton. But Horton cannot do it alone. In order to bring the defense back to the status they once had the linebackers are going to have to step up their game.
One player that Hurst has high hopes for is senior defensive end Arthur Holmes.
“I think Arthur Holmes is a preseason all-region player,” Hurst said. “He can be unblockable when he wants to be. He reminds me of the defensive ends we’ve had here. He’s not as big our strong as Sheldon Rankins, but he’s got a great first step. He’s going to be able to put pressure on the quarterbacks this season.”
After being forced to into the fire last season with the injury of quarterback Demario Terrell, Austin Holloway has definitely grown into the position as he resumes the starting quarterback position as a sophomore. A year of experience and a summer workout where he knows that everyone will be looking at him has given Holloway the tools and confidence to lead this team.
“He has all the intangibles of a great quarterback. If he were 6-foot-1 he would be on major radar’s right now. That’s how good he is,” Hurst said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him play the whole year and seeing what he can do. He’s a threat to pull it down and run and that gives us an extra weapon back there we can use.”
Joining Holloway in the back field are returners Andrew Henderson and Huggins. Even though Henderson will be the primary running back, Huggins’ contributions will be essential to the success of the offense. The other primary offensive weapons will be returners senior Evan House and sophomore Josh Sims.
“We might have to limit him to 15 plays on offense but in those plays he can make things happen for us,” Hurst said confidentially.
“Evan has started now for three years and made some great plays for us last year. He’s so polished, runs great routes and has great hands. He has a great rapport with Austin and they have great timing. Josh Sims is another sophomore that got a lot of playing time last year. I feel like in the 10 years I’ve been here, if he continues to grow as a player he could be one of the best one’s that’s come out of here.”
Despite a shaky offense and an extremely young team, Hurst still feels that his team an contend for a playoff berth as well as the region championship.
They will start their season play against Alcovy on Aug. 29 before heading playing Madison County (Sept. 5) on the road rather than playing Newton in their only open spot. Their other two games before starting subregion play are crossover games at Griffin (Sept. 12) before playing Jonesboro (Sept. 19) in their home opener.
“That was my decision and I’m taking heat for it in the community,” Hurst said about not playing Newton. “It’s good for the community and our kids like it. But it doesn’t do anything for us t o play two 6-A teams. My thing is why not play someone our size and it gives us a chance to travel. My goal is to play outside the Atlanta metro area, it just didn’t work out.”
Eastside will start their subregion schedule at Eagle’s Landing (Sept. 26) before hosting Locust Grove (Oct. 11). They will go back on the road against Henry County (Oct. 17) playing their final three games, Hampton (Oct. 24), Walnut Grove (Nov. 1) and the Region 4-AAAA play-in game (Nov. 7), at home.
In the play-in game, the top subregion team will play each for the region championship with each team guaranteed a playoff spot. The No. 2 and No. 3 of each subregion will play with the winner advancing.
“I like the way we’re doing it. I’d rather be an eight team region where you take the top four and you go. But it is what it is,” Hurst said. “We have to do what the region voted and I think it was fair. It does put a little more emphasis on each game week to week. We just have to make sure we look at each opponent when we play them and try to put ourselves in a good position for the end of the year.”