Eastside head football coach Rick Hurst knows 2008 can be a big year. Coming off of a solid 7-3 (5-3 Region 8-AAAA) season in 2007, the Eagles are poised to take the next step toward a berth at the state playoffs in December.
The Eagles started out well in 2007, winning their first four games. Two shutouts to open up the season showed the rest of the county how tough Eastside's defense could be. But a lot has changed since the Eagles opened up 2007 4-0.
Gone is the regional schedule that pitted the Eagles against the likes of cross-county foes Salem, Heritage and Rockdale. The Eagles will enter play in a new region and a new classification. With the new region brings a new sense of optimism.
Hurst enters his fourth season and will see players he brought into his program as freshman become senior leaders. Throughout practice Hurst said he's seen a great sense of chemistry unlike teams in the past and feels like this year may be a breakthrough season for the Eastside football program.
Eastside is in good shape in the backfield as senior quarterback Justin Wray returns behind center. Starting running back Broderick Alexander returns after a solid 2007 campaign and backup Rashad Hill and Jit Aiken will to fill the voids left by departing seniors Johnny Norrington and Lorenzo Echols who combined for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns last year.
"Roderick started in every game last year and Rashad played in every game so we feel good about both of our starting running backs," Hurst said.
Hurst said he is going to rely on Hill even more this year as he en
ters into his second full season at running back.
"Rashad came out last year for the first time and really blossomed toward the end of the year," Hurst said. "We're really counting on him. When he touches it, he can really make some things happen."
Wray proved to be a solid dual threat in 2007, throwing for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns while rushing for 618 yards and five touchdowns. Hurst said his veteran quarterback has looked good during the preseason and has improved in the passing game.
This year Wray may need to run even more as 80 percent of the offensive line is new.
"Offensive line has been a concern all spring and summer," Hurst said. "We lost four out of five offensive linemen and moved the other to a new position, so basically you're looking at a whole new offensive line."
Fortunately for Eastside, Hurst will implement the same spread offense they have the past three years and the line won't be called upon to learn a difficult set of plays.
"We try to get the ball to athletes in space," Hurst said. "We never line up under center and we basically will run all our plays out of the same shotgun set.
"Our schemes are simple. Our offensive linemen don't have to learn a lot. We formation people to death and we run the same six, eight plays out of it so that is simplified."
The Eagles will again line up in a 3-5 defensive formation but like the offense. During Hurt's tenure, the Eagles typically play the same base set on defense but will show offenses several variations of the five linebacker set.
Like the offense, Eastside loses several starters including all five of its linebackers. Eastside does return several seniors, but most of them don't have much game experience.
"We lost all of our linebackers but we have some very athletic guys coming back," Hurst said. "I actually think we are faster than we were last year, even at that position."
The Eagles return one starter on the defensive line but get senior Karl Williams back after he missed all of 2007 with an injury.
All-Region Caleb Pass, who was named to the 8-AAAA All Region Team in 2006 and 2007 and led the Eagles in tackles in both years is gone and will be replaced by Wray who will be asked to play on both sides of the ball. Also playing both ways is Hill who will play defensive back.
"That's a big blow [Pass' loss] especially since free safety is such a big part of our defense," Hurst said. "I think we'll be alright though. I like what I've seen so far."
Despite the inexperience on the offensive line, Hurst feels good about his starting backfield and believes the rest of his squad will catch up relatively quickly. The Eagles play one preseason game against Heritage on Friday and Hurst said he'll find out what his team needs before the opening game Aug. 28 at Sharp Stadium.
"We're going throw them to the wolves early," Hurst said. "I think we'll learn a lot before now and next Thursday before we take on Harris County. We'll be able to see a lot come Friday."
Eastside enters into the season in a new region under a new classification. The Eagles leave Region 8-AAAA to move to the smaller Region 8-AAA. Although Eastside could have stayed in 4A, the coaches decided as a collective group to move down a level. Since only four teams make the playoffs each year, Eastside's chances dramatically improve in Region 8-AAA as the Eagles becomes the eighth team in Region 8-AAA. Considering Region 8-AAAA had 13 teams last year, Hurst knows is team has a 50-50 shot at making the playoffs this year.
Although Hurst in unfamiliar with the teams in his new region, that doesn't mean the Eagles are taking the competition lightly.
"I don't think it's easier by any means," Hurst said. "Our schedule is a tough one and from what little I know about the region, many teams have improved."
Stephens County will be Eastside's toughest competition in 2008. The Indians have not lost a region game in three years and have compiled an impressive 29-2 regional record since 2003.
"Anytime you deal with Stephens County or Hart County, they are always perennial playoff teams," he said. "Those two teams are always there. Until someone beats Stephens in the region, they're going to be the top dog and the one that everyone is gunning for."
As for his own expectations, Hurst doesn't mince words. He fully expects his team to be good and said the Eagles have their sights on the state playoffs. During the past two years the Eagles have made the regional playoffs in Region 8-AAAA both years. This year the focus is on winning in the regional playoffs and landing in the state tournament.
"I like our chances," Hurst said about going deep in the postseason. "When we walked in here as coaches four years ago we had the goal of making it to the state playoffs. We have fallen short of that the past two years but I like our chances. I think we have talent to get in, it's all a matter of getting one of those four spots."