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GAME DAY: Eastside ready to have 'fun' at No. 8 Woodward Academy
With 425 rushing yards, junior Taylor Carter is Eastside's leading rusher, helping spur a ground game that's churned out over 600 yards in the last two games combined.

COVINGTON, Ga. — You can save trying to convince Troy Hoff that the Woodward Academy football program is having a down season this year. 

He’s not buying it. 

Hoff’s Eastside Eagles squad will head to College Park Friday night to take on No. 8 Woodward in a clash of teams undefeated in Region 4-AAAA play. 

Both teams come into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. contest with identical 6-1, 3-0 records, which is pretty similar to where they were last year before Woodward laid a 44-6 rout on the Eagles. That War Eagles bunch lost to eventual Class AAAA state champion Cartersville in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, while Eastside fell to Spalding in the first round. 

Hoff acknowledges that Woodward, as well as his team, have lost a lot from last year. But he’s under no illusions that the departure of players means a departure from the kind of dominance Woodward Academy has been used to over the last few years. 

“People keep talking about they’re down this year,” Hoff said. “I hope people talk about us like they do Woodward when we’re down. You’re talking about a team that played well against a state champion last year. That’s a team that’s gone quarterfinals, semifinals, semifinals in the last few years. And they’re a top 10 team now. That’s pretty good to be down.” 

To be sure, Woodward’s definitely lost some talent to graduation, including playmakers like quarterback Ryan Glover (Pennsylvania), receiver Josh Johnson (Louisville) and quarterback sack specialist Terry Myrick (Eastern Michigan). But Eastside has seen some graduation voids as well with the likes of Eric Stokes (Georgia) and Josh Sims (James Madison). 

But though the names and faces are vastly different this year, Hoff still sees ample quality on both rosters. 

“We both lost a sizable senior class last year, so that’s one thing that will be very different,” Hoff said. “But a lot of players are stepping up. Some guys are walking into a significant role this year for the first time, I think for both teams, and you see we’re kind of in the same spot as when we met this time last year, but we just got there a little differently.”

With the exception of a 40-0 loss to Class AAAAAAA Newton, Eastside has looked solid — and sometimes spectacular — in its six wins. Particularly in the last two games, the Eagles have played like a team that believes it can compete for a region championship. 

Against Druid Hills and Henry County, the Eagles have scored 50-plus points while rushing for 300-plus yards in each contest. Last week’s 305-yard rushing effort was the third game of the season where the Eagles eclipsed that yardage mark in the ground game. 

Not bad for a team that considered its offensive line a point of concern during the offseason. The scary part for opponents, though, is Hoff believes their best football is yet ahead of them. 

“(The offensive line) has been a work in progress, and I still don’t think we’re where we need to be or want to be at a consistency level,” Hoff said. “Which is a good thing. That means we’re getting better and still have room to grow. We had a lot of unknowns early on, made some changes. We saw some guys step up and guys earned their spots. Overall, they’ve just done the work to get better. Out of all the groups on our team, that’s the one I Think has grown the most.”

Hoff also credits the perimeter blocking of his receivers and tight ends as being instrumental to Eastside’s rushing success. It also helps that Tyon Davis, out for a couple of weeks due to injury, is back in action to help bolster a corps of running backs led by junior, Taylor Carter and surprising freshman, Quincy Collins. 

Eastside has four ball carriers — Carter, Davis, Collins and quarterback/receiver, Brayden Harper who have rushed for 200-plus yards this season. A fifth runner, senior Shamar Hunter, is only eight yards away from that 200-yard mark. 

Woodward’s also had success with the offensive production by committee approach. 

Two quarterbacks: junior, Christian Wylder and sophomore, Mike Wright, have combined to throw for 1,389 yards and 13 touchdowns through seven games. 

Junior Tahj Gary leads all War Eagle rushers with 757 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, with a whopping 11.1 yards-per-carry average. He’s also the team’s leading receiver, hauling in 24 passes for 458 yards and seven touchdowns, and is starting to rack up offers and attention from Division I college football suitors. But sophomores Jacorrei Turner and Ambe Caldwell have been effective targets in the passing game as well. 

Woodward Academy's Tahj Gary leads his team in rushing and receiving yards, averaging more than 15 yards every time he touches the ball. - photo by Submited Photo

As far as Hoff is concerned, all it means is Eastside players and fans ought not expect anything different from Woodward that it hasn’t shown in years past. 

“They’re a great program,” he said. “They’re used to winning football games. They’re well-coached, good players who have bought in to what they do there. I’m not expecting anything other than that from them.” 

What Hoff does anticipate is that his bunch will be ready to prove they can play with Woodward and compete for a region crown. Though cautious to go overboardwith the importance of this game, he admits that there’s been some excitement building with his players as Friday approached. 

“We know, our guys know, that it’s the big game in the region,” Hoff said. “Everybody knows (Woodward) wears the crown. Both teams undefeated in the region. We’re going to their house. It’s big. We’ve had a good week of practice. Good focus. I like where we’re at and where our team is at this point. We’ve checked every box, and now comes this test. But as important as this game is, it’s not the Super Bowl. It’s not an all-in-one game. 

“We want to win the region championship, but whether we win or lose, we’ve still got a lot of football left. We’ve still got two critical games in our region left. But we’re getting down to where you’re playing for positioning and you’re playing for region championships and playoff seeding, and our guys definitely understand that. It should be a fun game.”