COVINGTON, Ga. -- For the second straight year, Eastside will travel to Walnut Grove to play its preseason football scrimmage. It’ll be the first time the Eagles will play in a true game-like simulation since their first round playoff loss to Baldwin that ended the 2017 season, as Eastside typically does not play spring games.
Walnut Grove does, however, and the Warriors’ spring ended with a 7-6 loss to Social Circle in their spring game.
Here are five things to watch when Eastside and Walnut Grove square off at 7:30 p.m., and let’s start with the obvious…
1. What’s up with the trenches? Although three players on the offensive line return who started at least nine games last year, one gaping, Lamarius Benson-sized hole cannot be ignored. The 6-foot-3, 330-pound Benson is vying for playing time at Central Florida right now, and no matter who takes his spot, it’s probably a safe guarantee that that player will not be as big or as seasoned as Benson was. However, offensive line coach Trey Camps said he likes what he’s seen from his unit, in terms of aggression, quickness and effort. And running back Taylor Carter has noted that Eastside’s tempo offensively can help offset some size. Keep an eye on how that front line performs, particularly in the first half, tonight.
2. The evolution of Noah Cook. Last year, even before he got injured, Cook knew he had a safety valve in Brayden Harper, not just as an all-region performing wide receiver, but also as a change-of-pace, hard-running quarterback. Harper’s presence paid off royally after Cook missed close to half the season with an injury sustained against Newton. But now, Cook will enter 2018 as the team’s most experienced signal caller. He’s noticeably bigger and stronger. The arm is there, and his willingness to make plays with his feet has increased. He’s got young talent behind him, for sure, but what we’ll be watching is how Cook handles knowing much of the leadership on offense will fall squarely on his shoulders.
3. How deep is the depth? Sometimes in scrimmage games, you can be tempted to check out a bit in the second half, just because most of the starters don’t last beyond the third quarter. Tonight, though, we’ll be keeping a special eye on the second half to take a gander at some of the potential emerging talent. Eastside’s top 11 on both sides of the ball is pretty solid. The skill positions in particular are enticing. At running back, the Eagles can go three, maybe four deep with senior Taylor Carter and sophomores Quincy Cullins and Terrance Reid. The back seven defensively could be the team’s strength. Jerry Mays looks poised for a breakout season at receiver, along with the playmaking ability of Jamari Brown.
But who’s the guy behind center if Cook goes down? Both Camps and Hoff have thrown out names of some promising risers, including freshman James Amos who comes over from Cousins as a talented young lineman. When the starters do go out tonight, it could provide us a chance to see a glimpse of the up-and-comers who will add depth to this squad.
4. Will we get to see Kade Mote’s leg tonight? Eastside’s got a weapon in senior kicker Kade Mote that many high school programs only wish they had. Mote, also a standout for the Eagles’ soccer team, can hit from 50-yards out. In nine games last year he converted on 34 of 35 extra point attempts, and connected on six of his nine field goal tries, including a 50-yarder against Alcovy. Many times in the high school game, when you don’t have a kicker, you’re forced to either punt or go for it in various fourth down situations. Mote gives Eastside a scoring option that many programs don’t have. We may get a glimpse of that leg strength tonight.
5. More footballs needed? When you’ve got three returning tailbacks who rushed for a combined 1,208 yards and 12 touchdowns in a region-leading rushing offense, you’re in an enviable situation. But it’s one that poses the question: How will Eastside get the most out of its three capable backs? Carter (607 yards) is the leading returner. But Cullins (477 yards and five scores) and Reid (averaging 7.3 yards per carry) could probably start as sophomores for several of the other teams in Eastside’s region. Cook may not be the same kind of rushing threat at quarterback that Brayden Harper was, though he’s definitely serviceable. So it’ll be interesting to see how Hoff and offensive coordinator Jay Cawthon assemble an offensive game plan that gets that talented trio maximized touches.
Opponent Watch: Walnut Grove hasn’t had a winning season since 2014, although it made the Class AAAAA playoffs as a 4-7 squad in 2016. But the Warriors have a new coach in Robert Andrews who comes to Walton County after a three-year stint at Bowdon. Though it’s a scrimmage, it’s likely that Walnut Grove will take seriously the opportunity to show it has the potential to be much improved from last year’s 2-8 record. That should provide stiff competition for Eastside and a good evaluation opportunity before next Friday’s opener at Ola.