How many times have you heard it in football – the head coach gets all the credit? It’s especially true if the team is winning.
When head coach Rick Hurst arrived in Covington three-and-a-half years ago, he brought with him championship experience and more importantly, good football sense. His first task at hand was putting the right coaches in positions to help him build the team that went from 0-10 his first year to No. 10 in the state.
Eastside won its first region title last week and finished the regular season 9-1 – the best in school history. The Eagles didn’t just wake up one morning in August and collectively decide they were going to become champs. The transgression from perennial doormats to regional champions has been a four-year work in progress.
Two of those coaches, offensive coordinator Jay Cawthon and defensive coordinator Jason Tester have been a big part of Eastside’s success this year. The Eagles have enjoyed an integration of a stingy defense and big-play offense. Both units have benefitted from its coordinator’s experience.
Cawthon’s name may ring a bell as he’s a Covington native and a former Newton High star quarterback. After his days as a Ram, Cawthon played collegiality at the University of West Georgia. In fact, most of Eastside’s coaches have college football experience.
"It’s not a prerequisite, but it’s something I like in a coach," Hurst said of his coaches having college experience. "I think you have a better understanding, not of the game, but what it takes to play at the next level, and ultimately that’s what we’re here for."
Hurst, who played wide receiver at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said playing college ball gave him a better understanding of the game. He said the experience he gained from his position coach, current University of Georgia running backs coach Tony Ball, was invaluable.
"I learned so much from him about what coaching was and just how to prepare as a player, it just inspired me," he said.
Hurst brought Cawthon with him when he made the move from Central Gwinnett in 2005. The two first crossed paths in 2002 at Wheeler High School where Hurst was the assistant head coach and defensive secondary coordinator and Cawthon was the offensive coordinator.
"We clicked from day one," Cawthon said. "We had the same kind of philosophy. We both wanted to throw the football and we built a friendship that we kept even when he went down to Ware County. We’d keep up with each other and talk on the phone, and I was about to go to Ware to be his [Hurst’s quarterback coach] when he called me and told me we could go to Central Gwinnett."
The two spent three years at Central Gwinnett together before Hurst took the head coaching job at Eastside and brought Cawthon with him.
"I knew that this job might come open so I told him I thought there was a good mixture down here and we could win – maybe not right away, but I knew the community really supports football so it was a great situation to come into," he said.
The Eagles benefit from Cawthon’s playing experience everyday in practice. He runs the scout team at quarterback and gives the first team defense a look at a drop back passer who can read the field and make big throws.
"I think it helps our defense a lot, especially in pass skill drills," he said. "I’ll make a throw that most high school quarterbacks can’t make so it gets them in great position. Most high school quarterbacks can’t make a pre-snap read so I can do that and put them in some tough situations."
Cawthon’s offense is dictated by his personnel. He
prefers a pro-style offense or at the very least, a spread where he can open up the passing game. But more and more offenses are changing to the wing-T, a formation he doesn’t particularly care for. He’s been able to add elements to the two-back set Eastside currently runs and uses motion to get defenses to commit to the wrong look.
"If you look at some of our formations, they resemble the wing-T. But I’m a shotgun man," Cawthon said. "These last few years have changed me. I like to run to setup the pass whereas in the past, I would look to pass to setup the run. But the good thing about this offense is it fits what kind of athletes you have."
Call Eastside’s offense a hybrid spread with a wing-T look.
"We do our jet sweep out of gun," he said. "It gives the running backs more vision, but the blocking scheme is similar to the wing-T."
The Eagles even show a bit of wildcat formation when they need to get another athlete the ball. But since Justin Wray is arguably Eastside’s best runner, it only makes sense if he's injured.
Ironically, Tester, who looks like he could lace them up right now and play on Sundays, is one of the few that didn’t play college ball. After winning a state championship at Muskegon Catholic Central High School in Michigan, Tester bypassed college football to concentrate on other things.
"I put a lot into that senior season. That year was very emotional and taxing," Tester said. "I thought about playing, but I just didn’t think it could get any better. I was also 17 when I graduated high school so I was a year younger than the kids I played with. I had a couple of offers and was getting some looks, but I ended up just deciding to go to school."
Tester ended up taking an assistant coaching job with his alma matter while attending Grand Valley State University. He won another state championship that same year before eventually winding up at Northview High School in Grand Rapids, Mich. where he stayed for eight years.
Tester and his wife Cari moved to Covington three years-ago to take the defensive coordinator position. The move has been a perfect fit.
Tester’s defense reflects the way he played. Being from Michigan and used to Big Ten football, Tester understands the hybrid power/speed defensive philosophies. As a former linebacker with great vision and speed, Tester relates well with his personnel.
"I think I bring a certain mentality and seriousness to the defense," he said. "I’m a firm believer you put your best 11 players on the filed. Our stack system allows us to use multiple fronts and we’ve simplified things to the point where we’ve run three different fronts this year.
"I’m not stubborn in my ways that I won’t adjust. We aren’t going to run three defenses poorly, but we have smart kids and kids that can fly around so we are capable of doing that."
As with any good coach, Tester has adapted to his personnel. Football is always evolving and high school is no different.
"I played in an odd front, 5-2 base defense but we don’t do that anymore," he said. "A lot of teams are switching to the 3-5 because of the lack of size. If we had four stud lineman that needed to be on the field, we would probably go with our eagle look [5-2], but we play to our strengths which is our speed at linebacker. We’ve adjusted as any good staff would throughout the year and it’s always a learning experience."
Eastside had trouble stopping the run up the middle and playing solid gap defense earlier in the season, but Tester credits the progression of nose guard Jarrell Crowder and his linebackers as the difference late in the season.
Cawthon said being a former college player gives him a certain level of credibility with his players. Like Hurst, he doesn’t believe it is necessary to be a successful coach as evident by current Texas Tech University coach Mike Leach, who never took a snap at the collegiate level, but he does believe his experience allows him to translate what he learned to his players.
"I think kids today in high school listen to their coaches a little more if they know he’s played college football," Cawthon said. "We put them through a lot of the things we went through when we were doing our offseason programs and I think that’s a big deal to them.
"It’s not so much that they respect you more, but when times are going tough out there during the summer we can tell them we understand because we’ve been through it before."
Tester agreed and added his experience has given him a different perspective now that he’s a seasoned coach. He is able to help his players understand the pressures of playoff football and his even keel keeps the defense grounded.
"I learned so much from what I went through as a player and I wish in our run, I would have enjoyed it more than I did because it was that stressful," he said. "We have a lot of fun out here.
"With playoff football, it’s good to finally be back. It’s been a long time coming down here and it’s been equally long for me. It’s good to be back playing playoff football."
Both teams look over film weekly. Cawthon said that is something he never did in high school and admits it has been a huge step in high school football. Tester said the film sessions are crucial to his team’s weekly preparation and working through mistakes made in previous games.
"I’ve always been used to that, in regards to the amount of hours put into everything and with film," Tester said. "It’s a big part of what we do and it makes a difference."
Cawthon admits his success has a large part to do with the offensive position coaches he has working with him.
"This is the best offensive staff I’ve ever been associated with," he said. "Frankie Iverson, our wide receiver coach, Try Hoff our running back coach and Mike Kennedy our offensive line coach work tremendously hard. We all work as a unit. I might call the plays on Friday night but everyone has input."
Both coordinators said they would like to be a head coach someday in the perfect situation but they don’t envy the amount of extra work Hurst does as the field general.
"I really like what I’m doing right now," Cawthon said. "I enjoy working with the offense and calling plays. Rick has so much he is responsible for, people really don’t realize what goes into being the head coach."