After missing the postseason for the first time since 2011, Newton is aiming to make a return trip to the state playoffs this fall.
The Rams looked impressive early on last year. They survived a season-opening overtime battle with Langston-Hughes, followed by convincing wins over Eastside and McEachern. Even when faced with adversity in the form of a narrow loss to Houston County, they bounced back the following week by knocking off Parkview to open region play.
On Oct. 3, Newton sat at 4-1 and 1-0 in Region 4. Upsetting the Panthers — and playing in a region which featured just five teams — meant the team had earned complete control of its playoff destiny. But the Rams were unable to scratch the win column for the remainder of the year.
Their second blemish came in Week Six when the Rams were outmatched by Brookwood, which would go on to become a state quarterfinalist. The 22-point defeat was followed by a series of bad breaks and missed opportunities. Each of Newton’s final three games resulted in one-score losses, edging the club out of the playoffs in gut-wrenching fashion.
“In all of those ballgames that were one-score games, we had the ball in the final possession with an opportunity to either go ahead or tie,” Newton head coach Camiel Grant noted. “So the record doesn’t quite show how competitive we were.”
As Grant suggested, looking at Newton’s 2021 season on paper can be misleading.
Sure, the Rams won just four games, matching the total for their losing streak to close the year. But despite their final record they were outscored 151-146, a better mark than the 2020 squad that reached the playoffs in spite of a 207-114 point differential in favor of its opponents.
Grant and his staff also plugged in young players down the stretch. The youth movement — a result of both injury and coaching foresight — could pay off for Newton as it continues developing talent for the future.
“Overall, I think it was a good building block for where we’re trying to go,” Grant said of last season. “I think we’ll look back on that down the line and be able to point to that as a spot where we started to really solidify a foundation.”
Reflecting on last year has offered lessons throughout the offseason, but Newton isn’t in the business of dwelling on the past. The Rams are more concerned with what’s to come in the months ahead. Among a laundry list of to-do items, replacing the production of a talented senior class, headlined by a three-year starter in Jevarra Martin at quarterback is top priority.
Juniors Riley Scruggs and Jordan Nolley emerged as the frontrunners to step in as Newton’s signal caller this season.
Junior wide receiver Marcus Calwise has stepped into the limelight as the unquestioned leader of the Rams offense. On the heels of his coming out party last fall, Calwise pulled in offers from Arkansas State, Eastern Kentucky and Kent State this offseason. In addition to his on-field production, the All-Region wideout’s even-keeled demeanor and gravitational impact has cemented his place as a leader in the Newton locker room.
“He’s one of the most explosive kids that I’ve ever had an opportunity to coach,” Grant said. “We expect for him to pick up right where he left off.”
Calwise will be joined on the outside by Keon Davis, Gabe Williams and Elijah Turner. Zion Johnson will return to the backfield for the Rams, alongside Camoni Forsythe, who moved over from the defensive side of the ball.
“The receiver group is going to be much, much deeper than what it was in the past,” Grant said. “If we can get the quarterback situation settled they’ll have some guys that can light it up if they can get the ball to them.”
Newton’s defense will be anchored by defensive back Brandon Smith. Regarded as “the heart and soul of that defense” by Grant, Smith has garnered the attention of his coaches and teammates alike by setting an example with his actions.
Another defensive stalwart to watch this fall is senior Justin Benton, a West Virginia commit who returns to Newton after transferring back from IMG Academy. He’ll be battling along the defensive line with Damion Heggs and Anthony Bynum, among others.
“We lost a lot. We really did. But there are a lot of names on this defense that are poised to have big seasons,” Grant said.
Year after year, the Rams put themselves through a gauntlet before reaching region play. With early tests against Hapeville Charter, McEachern and Westlake — as well as county rivals Alcovy and Eastside sprinkled in — this season will be no exception. The non-region slate serves a greater purpose than a series of tune-ups. It offers direct exposure to the level of competition Newton will face in Region 4, as well as the state playoffs.
“We want the kids to play in games where teams are playoff teams, teams that have a strong fanbase, so that they can feel that atmosphere,” Grant said. “That’s what we’re going to play against in the region every week, so they need to see it.”