COVINGTON, Ga. — The No. 5 Eastside Eagles came into Friday night’s regular season football finale with Region 4-AAAA foe, Hampton, not only with an undefeated record, but a high-octane offense that averages 40 points per game.
Eastside (9-0, 5-0) isn’t just undefeated by the skin of its teeth, either. The Eagles’ average margin of victory in those nine wins is 28.4 points — more than four touchdowns — which means Eastside’s leaving absolutely no doubt against most of the teams it faces.
It also means fewer opportunities for talented place kickers to bask in the moment of a last second, walk-off field goal to win a game, or for strong-legged punters to show off their field-flipping abilities.
But even if the chances haven’t always been plenteous, just because of sheer team dominance, senior place kicker, Kade Mote and junior kicker/punter Ezra King have still managed to maximize their moments enough to give Eastside arguably the best one-two kicking game combo in the state.
And both kicking game specialists know they have their teams’ confidence, if a matter of winning and losing would ever come down to the work of their legs.
“Just the fact that our team trusts us both, no matter where we’re at on the field, it just means a lot,” Mote said. “Every time we go out, they tell us that they trust us, and it just feels good knowing that they have our back. It helps me to just go out and do me.”
Here’s what that’s looked like for Mote: In 2018, he’s connected on 6-of-10 field goal attempts with a long of 44 yards and he’s been true on 33 of 35 PATs. His 51 points puts him second on the team in scoring behind running back Taylor Carter.
On kickoffs he’s put five in the end zone for touchbacks. But King has been just as effective in his own right. For the season, King is averaging close to 40 yards per punt, and last Friday in Eastside’s region-title-clinching 41-0 win against Henry County, King launched a career-long 65-yard punt, while putting three punts inside the 20 and one inside the 10 at the 3-yard line.
His performance was enough to garner him recognition as the Kohl’s Kicking Camps National Player of the Week.
When King was asked about how it felt to be nationally recognized, a smiling Mote gave him a swift pat on the back — his way of expressing pride in his kicking teammate.
“That’s a big achievement for him,” Mote said. “I’m really happy for him, and it felt good to see him happy. So, yes, I’m definitely very proud of him.”
King called Mote’s pride an example of the friendly, yet competitive camaraderie the two kickers share.
“Not only are we both important to the team in our own ways, I feel like we have a competition almost that pushes us to do better,” King said. “I mean, we’re not looking at each other, glaring at each other like it’s a heated competition. It’s more like, ‘let me see if I can do what you just did.’ And it always just makes things fun. We’re just trying to do things to keep making each other better.”
As for the Kohl’s recognition, King called it a pleasant surprise.
“With the Kohl’s Kicking Camps, they do a lot of rankings for kickers, so we just entered some stats for recruiting purposes,” King said. “And they selected me to be a finalist for player of the week nationally. At first when I saw player of the week on Twitter, I just thought it was school player of the week, and then later I got like 40 notifications, and I knew it was something bigger.”
Although Mote’s the field goal specialist, King also has the kind of leg that can be counted on for any of Eastside’s place-kicking needs.
King nailed his only field goal attempt of the year — a 45-yard boot in Eastside’s 37-0 win over North Clayton back in September.
“I actually thought I missed it, but then I looked at the sideline and everyone was cheering,” King said.
But during Wednesday’s practice, both Mote and King were consistently nailing field goals from 47-plus yards.
Mote drilled a 52 yarder with room to spare, and just hooked a 55 yarder, while King’s 52-yard attempt just missed, bouncing off the crossbar and right up-right.
As both players were getting in their work, players and coaches were saluting each attempt with shouts of approval and appreciation for their kicking prowess.
“If conditions are right, we’re not afraid to give either of them a shot from 47 to 52 yards,” Eastside head coach Troy Hoff said. “We’ve got tons of confidence in those guys. Ezra’s up for the national player of the week honors after that monster week he had punting the ball (against Henry County). Kade’s drilled some from 50-plus yards out in his career.
“Flipping the field with the punting is huge for our defense, and the only thing it changes on offense is once we hit the 30-yard line, we know we have a legitimate shot at scoring.”
Hoff speaks with some valuable experience as an evaluator of kicking talent.
Before taking over head coaching duties at Eastside, Hoff spent nine years as running backs coach and special teams coordinator at the school. And during his time as offensive coordinator at Aberdeen (South Dakota) Central High School, he saw first-hand the work of former Wisconsin Badgers, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings kicker, Taylor Mehlhaff.
Mehlhaff won the 2003 South Dakota Gatorade High School player of the year award as a quarterback and kicker. As a kicker, he was a Riddell First-Team All-American, a USA Today Second-Team All-American and the No. 1 ranked high school kicker in the nation in 2004, according to Rivals.com. He was also a sixth round selection by the New Orleans Saints in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Mehlhaff now serves as a special teams coach for Wisconsin.
Hoff draws back on that experience as he tries to tutor Mote and King through the process of potentially finding a collegiate home for kicking duties. From watching Mehlhaff’s recruiting process, he learned that recruiting kickers and punters often goes by a different creed than what’s seen with the recruitment of skill players.
“With a guy like Taylor doing all that he did and going through that (recruitment) process, you’d think everybody would want to offer him,” Hoff said. “But it isn’t quite like that. With kickers it’s different. (College) teams approach kickers differently. Some of them will invest money and say ‘this is our guy,’ and we’re not gonna worry about it.’ They’ll take one on scholarship and the rest, walk-ons. And some say, ‘we’ll just take walk-ons and save the academic money, and they can earn the scholarship later.’
“It’s kind of a mix as to how each team approaches it and what they have on their roster. It’s a different kind of position, because schools aren’t typically gonna invest money and scholarships in two or three kickers.”
That said, Hoff believes that both Mote and King have next-level potential when it comes to kicking, if that’s something they want to pursue.
“Ezra’s got another year left, and he’s showed a real strong leg kicking and punting,” he said. “He hasn’t really focused on punting before these last eight months, so he’s got a lot of potential, and you’ve seen it already. Kade’s a soccer player as well, and he’s had a solid career. It’s real competitive with kickers, but I think if the situation’s right, they’re both gonna have some opportunities. At what level? I don’t know, but it should be there for them.”
And both players say they want those opportunities. For Mote, that’s saying a lot, given that his first intentions upon coming to Eastside was to focus solely on soccer.
“One day, coach Hoff just walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about kicking an oval ball instead of just a round ball,’ Mote said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ But eventually I came out and tried. But I wouldn’t mind playing in college. To be honest, I don’t know which (sport) I would prefer. In soccer, it’s harder to get a scholarship. Football wouldn’t be easy, but it’s easier than soccer. I’d take either if I got one, but I definitely would want to do it in college.”
Said King: “Playing in college is totally the goal. In college games, I watch punters all the time and I’m trying to find out what’s different about my punt and his punt? What’s he doing that’s making his go like that? And I try to replicate that in my practice to get me ready for that time.”
Both King and Mote said they don’t mind the fact that Eastside’s offensive firepower and overall team success sometimes limits their time on the field. They’re just elated to be a part of a team that has a chance to make Newton County history.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t spend some time daydreaming about that moment where they could be called upon to win a close game, especially with playoff time approaching.
“If it did come down to making that last kick, of course I’d be nervous,” Mote said. “It’s pressure, but I’d be ready to handle it.”
Neither are really big on superstitions or rigid routines to help their kicking rhythm.
“It’s nothing real serious,” Mote said. “Like kickoffs are different than a PAT or field goal. On a kickoff I’m taking eight steps and four over. On a field goal it’s three back and two to the left. For longer ones I take a longer step back just to help build up more momentum.”
And it’s that simplistic approach King says would be the solution for overcoming the pressures that would come with making a game-winning kick or crucial, field-flipping punt.
“If I’m in that situation, I’d just try to block everything out, and let my muscle memory and all the work I put in throughout the week of practice kick in,” King said. “I’m a big believer in drill work and competitive drill work to get your form just absolutely right. Once you get that down, trust what you have in your leg.
“If we trust what we’ve been doing in preparation, if called upon in those big moments, it shouldn’t be that hard.”