This time last year, Eastside High School football was surrounded by question marks. Were the Eagles a one-hit wonder? Was their 2008 success all about Justin Wray and the six other players who went off to play college football? Was Git Aiken a soft running back?
After a 1-2 start, the Eagles answered those questions by going undefeated in Region 8-AAA play and making it all the way to the Class AAA semifinals. Entering tonight’s game with Locust Grove though, some of those questions have reemerged.
Aiken turned out to be the most prolific back in Eastside history and the defense emerged as one of the top units in the state. But with Aiken gone, the running game has yet to find its rhythm. Alex Smith and Chavis Griggs have shown potential that both are ready to break out in 2010. And it could begin tonight against a Locust Grove team which has given up 74 points in two games so far.
Locust Groove enters its first year of region play. And the Wildcats face a quick learning curve. They went 7-3 last year in a nonregion schedule — status quo for a first-year program. But that success wasn’t against teams with defenses as good as Eastside’s.
For the Eagles, it all starts up front. Sheldon Rankins, Jerrell Crowder and Shaquille Huff have controlled the line of scrimmage with their size and strength at defensive line. But the Eagles will be without Huff after he sustained an ankle injury against Newton. Eastside also lost linebacker Antonius Sims who went down with a knee injury and is expected to miss at least this week’s game with an MCL sprain. James Baker and Edwardo Mendoza will see more time in place of Huff.
Offensively, the Eagles get a chance to find their rhythm. Califf Carnes is coming off his best game of the season, a 10 for 21 performance for 181 yards with a touchdown against Newton. Quan Moten had 132 of those yards on three catches including an 80-yard touchdown and continues to be Eastside’s best playmaker on offense. Carnes and the offensive line should find time to throw and the running game usually starts to find its groove in the third and fourth games of the season.
With a new region, Eastside faces yet another group of new opponents. That favors the Eagles' zone blocking scheme which thus far has yet to flow like it has in the past. Smith and Griggs are finding holes but so far, the line is yet to get seal off linebackers consistently. The zone blocking scheme predicates its success on picking off blocks upfield. When the line starts to find its rhythm, look for Smith and Griggs to break off those long runs Eastside is accustomed to.
The Eagles are searching for an offensive rhythm. But Eastside is in better shape than it was at the same point a year ago. Last week’s loss to Newton was not a major surprise given the Rams have an experienced squad that beat the Eagles last year. Hurst and company were encouraged by what they saw last week unlike after the loss to Newton in ’09 when they were scratching their heads while wondering if they could make another playoff run.
Things worked out last year. It's time to see if the 2010 playoff run starts tonight.
What: Eastside (1-1) vs. Locust Grove (0-2)
Where: Sharp Stadium
When: 7:30 p.m.
2009 meeting: First meeting
Last week: Newton defeated Eastside 20-14; Coffee defeated Locust Grove 40-0
The skinny: Eastside starts its march back to the playoffs with one of the weaker teams they'll face in Region 4-AAA. Like the past two years, the Eagles should feast on the bottom feeders in the region. And it comes at a good time. Getting off to a good start in region play will boost confidence and get the Eagles back on the winning track. Last week's loss is forgotten about by now. By now, the coaches and players know what to expect. They know what it takes to win and know what to do to get things going offensively. Look for Eastside to win this one going away. After that, it's three tough games in a row. So a good performance tonight will kick off region play on the right foot.