COVINGTON, Ga. -- Pepperell’s head football coach Rick Hurst has a good thing going right now.
He’s the head coach for the Lindale, GA program that was somewhat of a high school football power in the 1990s and early 2000s. And if last year’s 10-2 mark and second straight playoff appearance is any indication, he’s on the way to pushing the school back to some of the success it’s used to.
But that doesn’t mean Hurst doesn’t ever take time to think about where he’s come from.
Hurst cut his Georgia high school football coaching teeth at Eastside when he took the reigns of the program back in 2005. He spent 10 seasons there before giving way to long time assistant and current Eagles coach Troy Hoff.
Hurst has moved on physically, but in a lot of ways, he’ll tell you that a large part of his heart is still back in Covington.
“I’ll tell you, as soon as my game is over up here, the first thing I do is go to check the score to see what Eastside’s doing,” Hurst said. “Those guys are like my family. I miss that staff. Not just because of the football, but because we were such good friends. Coach Hoff, coach (Frankie Iverson). Man, we just had so much fun building things over there. The coaches coached their butts off. The kids worked their tails off. It was great.”
Hurst’s waxing reminiscent about his days at Eastside came as he was discussing how proud he was of former Eagle Dante Blackmon finding a NFL home with the Indianapolis Colts. Blackmon became the sixth Covington and Newton County player to make an NFL team, and the second from Eastside — a feat that’s not small, considering the size of Eastside High.
A Class AAAA school, Eastside is considerably smaller than its county counterparts Alcovy (Class AAAAAA and Newton (Class AAAAAAA). But a great case can be made the school has been just as successful athletically, if not more so — particularly in football — than the other two over the last decade.
Since 2008, Eastside has seen the same amount of NFL players (2) find teams as Newton has. And with two more former Eagles, Antonius Sims (Appalachian State) and Shaquille Huff, a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State, still seen as potential pro prospects, it’s not out of the question that Eastside’s NFL players total could match Newton’s in the next year or so.
Huff, one of the guys who played with Hurst and played along side athletes like Sims and Sheldon Rankins (New Orleans Saints) says he’s not surprised to see Eastside continue its big success despite its smaller stature.
“Man, we worked,” Huff said. “When I came in as a freshman in 2008, it was like nothing I’d ever been through at the time. Coming out of middle school, you know, you run the same kind of stuff they run and all that. But when I got to high school, it was the first time I’d ever done summer conditioning, working out, two-a-days and all that. It kicked my butt. But I didn’t give up.”
Part of that was because Huff said the older players and former players wasted no time helping coaches instill the blue collar culture that was expected of every Eastside Eagle.
He called out names like Kevyn Agudo, who recently passed away, Jerrell Crowder and Jarrett Hubbard as guys who helped the younger players learn the ropes and adapt to the work ethic expectations.
“That class before me with Jerrell and Kevyn and those guys, man, they showed us how to do it,” Huff said. “They told us that even if the work was kicking my butt, don’t give up. Finish everything you do, and you have no choice but to get better.”
And that’s why Huff said he feels a sense of satisfaction and pride when he sees guys like Blackmon and Rankins make it to the big stage.
“To know I was right next to those guys or played on the same field as those guys, man it’s special to see them get where they are,” Huff said. “That always gives me pride.”
Same with Hurst.
“Those are my boys,” Hurst said. “They’ve all got a special place in my heart. The school. Covington in general. I’m happy here where I am, no doubt about it. But like I said, every Friday night, I’m checking on those guys to see the continued success. I knew it was in great hands with Troy (Hoff) took it over. He’s doing a great job of continuing what we started.”
Signs of progress
It wasn’t always sweet, though. When Hurst came on board, he was taking over a team that had gone 0-10 the previous season. And his first team repeated that mark. But he knew that something was building something special when he received a meaningful outside opinion.
“I remember we were playing Salem High, and at the time they were like 8-1 and region champs,” Hurst said. “They’d beaten Eastside like 50-0 the year before. And they beat us again that next year, but this time it was something like 28-7. It was respectable. And I remember at that time (coach) Frank (Caputo) grabbed me after that game, and he said, ‘Rick, I don’t care what you’re doing. Just keep doing it. That’s the hardest that team has played in four years.’
“I took that to heart, and then we went to work.”
Sure enough, that 2005 season would be the last time Eastside would record a losing season. Over the next nine years, Hurst would take Eastside to three straight playoff appearances, including a state semifinals appearance in 2009 when the Eagles narrowly lost 21-14 to eventual state champion Peach County.
Hurst says it was all about establishing a determination that an Eastside football team would never lose in the work ethic category.
“I didn’t care how talented we are or how talented we weren’t,” Hurst said. “We were not going to be outworked. We may be outsized, but another team would never be stronger than we are. We had some good speed. Some years we had great speed, and one thing we did a very good job with there was being agile and doing everything fast.
“That was a part of our process.”
Carrying on the process
Process was one of the first words coach Troy Hoff used to describe his Eastside team’s grit and penchant for playing teams tough, despite being outnumbered or out-sized.
It was the word he used when asked about how the Eagles were able to go toe-to-toe with a big, talented Class AAAAAAA foe Newton last year when the Eagles played the Rams to a 41-41 tie, wherein no overtime was permitted due to it being a non-region game.
How was Eastside always in the thick of things, regardless of the opponent and no matter the skill level?
“It’s all about our process,” Hoff said at the time. “We try to do things the right way. We try to emphasize hard work, and playing fast, and we try to make sure our players understand that if we take care of those things, there aren’t a lot of teams we can’t play with.”
Long time assistant coach Frankie Iverson calls it the “chip on the shoulder” effect.
“I’ve been here 12 years, and I can say that the way we’re able to maintain it speaks more about our kids than anything else,” Iverson said. “We’ve got some hard working kids. They come with a chip on their shoulders because they’re the smallest school in the county. They carry that chip for so long that it transfers into the college game and it transfers to those opportunities out of college. When you have a competitor and you add that chip, and you’re being told Eastside isn’t expected to be as good as everybody else, it eats at you and adds fuel.”
Huff says that the familiarity Eastside players have with the others Newton County guys on other teams causes intensity to spill over onto the field.
“It’s in-county,” Huff said. “It’s so small. You see the dude across from you. You used to play with him. But it’s a whole different thing when you gotta play against him. That’s been how it is since I’ve been there.”
And from what Huff can see, things haven’t changed.
“I was at Eastside right before my pro day,” he said. “They’re still out there working hard and playing hard and going fast. It’s good to see the process is still going.”
The undeniable success
When the 2017 season begins, Hoff will enter his third season at the program’s helm. He just finished seeing off a class of 25 seniors — about eight of which will be playing college ball somewhere, including Eric Stokes (UGA) and Josh Sims (James Madison).
For many coaches, whether they say it or not, that constitutes a bit of a rebuilding season on the horizon. But that’s not in Hoff’s vocabulary.
“The expectations don’t change here,” he said. “We’re still coaching guys to play hard and to play fast. We’re still looking for other guys to fill in those other spots, even if you have to train three or four guys to do what one guy did. I think we still have plans to have the same kind of success.
The numbers don’t lie. Since 2008, Eastside has produced 22 all-state performers, including 10 first-team players. Multiple student-athletes have gone to play at the collegiate level, and several still have shots to play professionally.
There’s Antonius Sims whose name is adorning several all-preseason teams as a senior at Appalachian State, and then there’s Huff as well.
“I’m still working on finding a spot in the league,” Huff said. “I’ve moved to Insian and I’m still working out and training. Just waiting to see what my agent has for me.”
But until that time, Huff said he’s rooting on every Eastside Eagle he can think of — including those in his Class of 2012, before and beyond it.
“I’m watching all those guys,” he said. “And I smile when I see them succeed. Every time I see it, I keep thinking that it’s crazy how those guys are in the same spot I was in. Who would’ve thought that all these people would still be getting D-1 offers from little old Eastside and little old Covington?”