COVINGTON, Ga. — There aren’t any rules for how a team should approach the season after going undefeated in the regular season, winning its first region championship in almost a decade and ending the year with a 12-1 record.
This is what the 2018 Eastside Eagles did. Now come the questions.
How, specifically, is a team supposed to follow up the only undefeated regular season ever recorded in Newton County football history?
How do you rebuild a defense decimated by graduation?
In short, what might Eastside do for an encore in 2019?
Some would suggest that the Eagles have to back up their performance and put Newton County and the state of Georgia on notice that the team is the real deal.
Eagles coaches are not underestimating or sugarcoating the expectations that are sure to follow them heading into their first game of the season next Friday at Ola.
Having to bare the weight of expectations as large as the ones placed on Eastside is not for the faint of heart. That’s why Eastside coaches spent the summer breaking the team down to build it back up again.
“It sounds simple. It sounds easy, but get better every day, every rep counts, especially with a lot of those guys that haven't played as much, whether they're young or old,” Eastside coach Troy Hoff said during July’s East Metro Atlanta Football Media Day. “We've said that before. It's going to be important. We know what these guys have done that I have with me here today -- their reputation, their work ethic and how they perform when the lights are on."
Losing several seniors to graduation last year is one challenge that Hoff sees as one that will fall on the players who are stepping into that place.
“What's new for [the seniors] is they’re in new roles as well,” Hoff said. “Playing the game is one part of it. Now they're in the leadership role. And I'm not saying they haven't been in that before, but they don't have the support of the seniors above them -- now it's on them. So that comes with the learning curve as well.”
The younger players on the team haven’t had to experience the pressures that come with performing and sustaining the level of play that Eastside has established, particularly under Hoff’s watch.
The goal is to prepare them and get them as comfortable as possible.
“I think that is that's the task, getting [the young guys] acclimated as quickly as possible,” Hoff said. “From a workout perspective, and all that they're good. Now it's practicing at a sustained level for long durations of time, which is the season. So concentration, executing, maintaining that focus in practice, which carries over to game day.”
One Eagle in particular is as comfortable as he’s been in a long time, according to one Eagles coach – and that’s senior quarterback Noah Cook.
Cook is entering the year coming off an offseason that saw him step more into his light as an athlete. Spending time playing travel baseball and earning a trip to Nashville, Tennessee to the vaunted Elite 11 quarterback camp, Cook has elevated his stature as one of the state’s top all-around athletes and a leading quarterback in Class AAAA.
“Coach [Jay] Cawthon does a real good job with me about [keeping my focus],” Cook said. “We spend 90% of our time together. I mean, our practice, we’re together the whole time. He's constantly talking about you ‘You're never too good; you always got something to work on.’ And that's my goal, to keep getting better and to keep progressing and be the best that I can be for myself and my team. Because it is bigger than playing football. You're playing with your brothers, you're playing for God, you play for your family, but most importantly, playing for yourself, and you want to do [well]."
Gearing up for his second full season as Eastside’s signal-caller, Cook has plans to fully establish himself as the leader for his program and to command more trust from his teammates.
“I tried to instill in some of the younger guys that, you know, what we did last year; it doesn't matter,” Cook said. “You got to be your own person, you’ve got to do your own thing. Especially for a lot of these younger guys that didn’t get to play a lot of snaps, that are good -- and now they're going to be playing a lot of snaps this year. We just got to work hard, and you’ve got to put in the effort. It's a grind; you got to do it every day. You can't just show up and expect results.”
His relationship with Eastside’s woefully underrated offensive line, which features seniors Bryant Byrd and Pierce Downs, is one of the significant factors that can be attributed to his success.
A NewTen Top 10 Covington News player and preseason All-County and All-State selection, Cook, is undeniably one of the best – if not the best – individual players in Newton County.
“Noah works hard,” Hoff said. “He's a humble kid that plays hard and leaves it on the field and those guys see that, so there's mutual respect between his approach and how he is with the guys and the respect he has for them.”
Defensively, Eastside doesn’t have as many proven players. But Hoff is high on players such as unheralded senior Mark Jackson, who, before the latter part of his junior year, had never played football.
“What makes [Mark] dangerous as a defensive lineman is his first step -- he has got such a quick step that he can absorb that space between him and that offensive lineman very quickly, defensive lineman coach Chris Edgar said. “We tell our guys all the time that a tie is a win for us, it's a loss for the offensive line. If we can absorb that space as quickly as we can, it causes problems for anything that the offense is trying to do.”
Jackson’s strength is a popular subject as he is said to be able to bench a pure 600 pounds. His work in the weight room since the ending of last season has earned him a chance to start and become a major contributor to this Eastside team.
“There were times during the spring, where he single-handedly would disrupt the entire play, just by being that quick off the ball,” Edgar said. “So a good summer of continuing to get stronger and continue to work on those technique kinds of things, and kind of embracing that leadership role, not as ‘hey, I'm coming in to help out,’ but ‘I'm the guy’, is only going to make him a better football player.”