This time last year, Brayden Harper was preparing himself to be quarterback Austin Holloway’s main pass catcher.
Fast forward to the last week of spring football for the Eagles, and Harper now is the one preparing to be the chief pass thrower.
Harper, a two-time All-Region 4-AAAA performer as a receiver for Eastside football, is now the heir apparent to the signal calling duties vacated by Holloway, a graduating senior who has signed a baseball scholarship to Georgia College.
Harper is no stranger to playing quarterback, as he started under center for Indian Creek Middle, and worked out with the quarterbacks at Eastside during his freshman year. But thanks to some injuries that shifted things around, Holloway was firmly intrenched as the starting quarterback, and Harper became his go-to receiver.
And according to Eastside coach Troy Hoff, he has no plans to expect drop off now that Harper looks to be the one running the Eagles’ fast paced offense.
“He’s a senior. Team captain. He’s Mr. Utility,” Hoff said. “He’s just a great football player. All region receiver for two years. He’s played some outside linebacker for us. Played some special teams and been our backup quarterback. So it’s not foreign to him, but stepping into that starting role, I think he’ll do a good job. He’s a great athlete.”
Harper proved as much during the 2016 season when he snagged 26 of Holloway’s passes for 444 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He averaged a team-leading 17.1 yards per catch. As a backup quarterback, Harper went 13 of 22 passing for 178 yards and two interceptions in mostly mop-up duty.
Now, with starting signal caller pressure on him for the first time since middle school, Harper says he’s learning how to retrain his focus into a full time quarterback mindset once again.
“It’s a tough transition, but I think that if I can get back into it we can have a good football team this year,” Harper said.
Perhaps knowing this day would come for him, the 5-foot-11, 185 pound junior said that when he wasn’t busy making plays at receiver, he was gleaning a bit from Holloway’s steady hand as a three-year starter.
"I learned from mainly to stay calm, cool and collected,” Harper said. “Don’t let things get to you too much, and just go out there and play ball.”
Eastside opted not to have a spring game to conclude its spring football session, mostly because Hoff said he wanted an opportunity to “work on ourselves,” according to Hoff. It’s an understandable game plan, given all that Eastside will lose to graduation, beyond replacing Holloway.
“This spring it’s fundamentals,” Hoff said. “On one standpoint, you look and see you’ve lost 25 seniors. Eight or nine of them are college level players. So it’s been a lot of getting these guys playing who aren’t used to playing a lot. Football is a simple game. You block and tackle. If we can’t do those things very well, it doesn’t matter what scheme we use.”
One of the challenges with shifting Harper over to quarterback is that it now leaves Hoff with the arduous task of trying to fill that productivity hole at wideout now. Even Harper isn’t quite sure where that production will come from in the passing game. He mentioned wideout Jason Lackey. But Hoff said it’ll probably be a combination of guys working to get the job done.
“It isn’t always one guy,” he said. “We use a lot of different formations and personnel. We want versatile guys that we can put out there. So either you have to find one guy who can do it all, which is rare, or you have to get you three or four guys in different spots and train them up.”
Several Eastside standouts who may not need as much training up as others include offensive lineman and South Carolina commit LeMarcus Benson. Benson will anchor the line and pave the way for Harper’s talented tailback duo in rising junior Taylor Carter and rising senior Tyon Davis.
Davis transferred over to Eastside from Rockdale this January, and could be a suitable replacement for the graduating Anthony Brown.
“He looks good,” Hoff said of Davis. “He’s a hard working kid. He’s got a good burst. He’s done well since he’s been here.”
Harper welcomes the addition, knowing that sometimes a solid rushing attack can be a new quarterback’s best friend.
“They’re going to help a lot, really,” Harper said. “We’ll be a quick offense. We’re going to look to strike fast and score and get ahead."
And neither he, nor his coach is willing to call this a rebuilding year.
“You don’t go into it expecting to take a step back,” Hoff said. “You go in with the same expectations, and realize every other team is going to be different too. We just don’t want to change our thought process or philosophy. We give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter and see what happens. I think this team is one where the longer we go with more reps and the more comfortable they are in their role, the better we’ll be.”
Said Harper: “I don’t think it’ll be too much different honestly. If we run the same schemes and do the same things, we can have the same outcome that we did last year. Maybe a little better and go deeper in the playoffs and get more wins. That’s what I believe.”