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PREP FOOTBALL: Eastside High School's offensive line powers the small school's giant offense
Eastside Football
Rising senior Bryant Byrd (far left) received his first offer to play college football from Louisiana College. -photo by Daniel Richardson

COVINGTON, Ga. – The Eastside Eagles football team – for all of the focus on the size of the Class AAAA school – is known for packing an offensive punch that has resulted in undeniable success.

The 2018 campaign saw the Eagles become the first Newton County football team to post an undefeated regular season. By now you know that coach Troy Hoff’s squad finished 12-1, losing only to eventual state champion Blessed Trinity in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

They did it by touting an average margin of victory of over 20 points – also the highest in school history. Eastside’s 500 total points scored for the year was also a program best, and it helped the Eagles to their first region championship in almost a decade.

Anyone who watched them play knows there was plenty of offensive firepower to go around last year.

Starting quarterback, Noah Cook threw 25 touchdowns on the year, completing 67 percent of his passes. On the year, Cook averaged 13 yards per pass totaling 2,100 passing yards.

Eastside was able to rush for over 2500 yards, with senior running back Taylor Carter claiming 1000 of those on his own. Sophomore Terrance Reid ranked second on the team in rushing yards with 512.

Even Cook finished the season third on the team in rushing yards with 352 total yards. Don’t forget about Gardner Webb-bound wideout and defensive back Jamari Brown who proved himself a deep threat in the Eagles’ passing game.

Yes, all of the Eagles’ success on the offensive end can easily, and justifiably so, be attributed to the talented backfield, receiving corps and quarterback. However, the catalyzing element to the explosive Eagles’ offense lies in its offensive line.

“I think we grew as a group last year and did a good job with what we were asked to do,” said Eastside offensive line coach Trey Camps. “It’d be crazy to say that we didn’t have a part [in the team’s success], but we’d be remiss not talking about Taylor Carter and guys like him and Terrance Reid and Jordan Rogers that ran the ball really well for us last year.”

Making up the front four of the 2018 offensive line were rising seniors Bryant Byrd and Pierce Downs, rising junior Austin King and James Amos who started up front for Eastsude last year as a freshman.

Asking the four of them to beat their drums for their level of productivity would be a fruitless mission, but that only speaks to the group’s level of maturity and leadership.

Though they are a unit and work in unison, Byrd and Downs have become the leading voices on the group as preparation for the 2019 season began in earnest when spring practice started two weeks ago. Camps is hesitant to call Byrd and Downs veterans, citing their relative youth, but from what they’ve shown in their time at Eastside, the title could be appropriate.

“They’ve done a good job the last couple years of growing and being more vocal,” Camps said. “They do a good job of leading the group and keeping the guys accountable. They come to work every day, and they lead by example, and it’s great for the young guys to see that with two guys that are not necessarily the biggest or the strongest guys but guys that do things the right way and handle their business on and off the field.”

Last season Amos came in and started 13 games for the Eagles and made an impression on his teammates and his coaching staff. Now that his freshman campaign is over, Camps and the other coaches are expecting to see some building off of last year’s success.

King, started on both sides of the ball as an offensive lineman and as a defensive end.

Together the four of them helped the Eagles churn out the single-best offensive production in a season since the school began playing football in 1996.  Their cohesiveness, though, doesn’t come solely from the love of the game. Chemistry sustained outside of football fuels their trust for one another on the field.

“Before you have to trust them on the field, you have to trust them as a person and as a friend, and that really helps a lot,” King said.

The trust each of the four has for each other aids in the way they push and keep each other accountable on the field.

Through small gatherings at Zaxby’s before games and practices, or on the bus rides home from games, the four have of them have grown in the way they respond to each other. The time spent together has afforded them the ability to know what the other is thinking and how they are going to react to certain things.

Playing on the field together and building the relationship off the field has led King, Amos, Byrd and Downs to become a foundation for the Eagles’ offense, even as it will have to replace some skill position talent in 2019. The expectations of the team are still high, and there is a set standard for the offensive line so that relationship has to be able to withstand constructive criticism, and by their account it has.

“Personally, if I see something that they don’t do right during a play, I’ll try to push them, Byrd said. “And just encouraging them to do better and not hang their head if they [run] the play wrong.”

It’s that same cooperative effort and professionalism that got the team through what is described as the lowest point of the season in a game against Woodward Academy, a game the Eagles won 38-31 after a furious comeback in the second half.

Down 24-7, at the half Carter and Cook were able to go off offensively, due in part to work put in by the offensive line. Hoff’s message to the team at halftime resonated, particularly with the offensive line, as he challenged them that the game wasn’t over, and there was another half of football to play.

The Eagles needed its leaders on the team to step up, and for the offense, the men up front answered the call. Moreover, as leaders on the team, it comes with the territory to be able to be a model for the rest of the group. That’s something the line looks to make a staple of its team contribution next season.

“It means a lot because all of the young guys look up to us, and look at us for leadership,” Downs said. “The coaches tell them to watch us and watch what we do, so it’s kind of surreal to be like we’re the older guys now – we’re who the coaches use as examples and things like that.”

For the Eagles’ offense, it starts with the offensive line, and even more so with the relationship, the line has with its running backs and quarterback.

The backs Carter and Reid both give credit to the line for their ability to make plays and significant gains in the holes the line works to open up.

As a quarterback, Cook is also well aware of the privilege he has of having a line like the one he has at Eastside. It’s because of them, he says, that he has the confidence to perform at a high level.

“They protect me, they do their job [and] they get down in the trenches,” he said. “That’s what they do. They gotta block the whole entire game just so I don’t get hurt, and that respect goes a long way.

“At the end of the day, quarterbacking, yes it’s a tough job, but to be able to sit back there it makes it a whole lot easier knowing you [are] not going to have nobody get near you.”

Coming into the new season, Eastside has the benefit of having four experienced competitors in the trenches who want just to keep doing their job at a high level and let the outcomes on the field speak for them. They want nothing more than to outwork the guys in front of them, and even sometimes the man next to him.

“I want to be the leader in pancake blocks next year because Amos beat me by one or two last year, and I want to get back [on top],” King said.