COVINGTON, Ga. — The easy narrative to bring into tonight’s Newton-West Forsyth playoff game is that of a beleaguered program with its tail tucked between its legs after limping into the playoffs with three losses in its last four games and an abrupt coaching change.
But sometimes, easy is not always correct.
Yes, the Newton Rams feel a bit embarrassed after falling in double overtime to rival Rockdale last week. And yes, for the first time in six years, Newton — at least for the immediate future — does not have a head coach without the tag “interim” placed in front of his name. Terrance Banks resigned Monday afternoon after a six-year stint at the helm of the county’s largest school’s football program.
But everyone we’ve heard from this week has expressed nothing but a positive vibe — in practice, in team meetings, whatever. There seems to be a renewed sense of purpose around Newton’s football program to prove that 2018 isn’t a throw-away season.
Part of that optimism stems from the fact that interim coach, Camiel Grant is a favorite around the program and the school. Lauded by principal Shannon Buff and athletic director Vincent Byams as a picture of stability, others have spoken of how well respected Grant is among the players and coaching staff.
Grant’s presence has brought the immediate addition of two new assistants to the staff that have been around the program before. They are Chris Ray and former NFL offensive lineman, Lewis Kelly.
Kelly, a science teacher at Newton High since 2014, was earlier named the 2019 Newton County Teacher of the Year. A graduate of South Carolina State, Kelly went on to enjoy a six-year career in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants (you’ll hear more of his story this weekend).
Beyond that, you just get the sense that Newton players will want to win this game, not only for themselves in an attempt to salvage a sometimes frustrating season, but also for Grant and the rest of the current staff that’s stuck around to help keep things afloat.
That said, let’s take a look at what to expect in tonight’s game.
The Matchup: Newton Rams (4-6) at West Forsyth (5-5). This is a battle of two programs who desperately want to get back into the playoff win column. For Newton, the Rams haven’t won a playoff game since 2015, and it’s been 2012 since West Forsyth has tasted postseason glory.
The When and Where: Friday Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. at West Forsyth High, 4155 Drew Rd., Cumming, Georgia.
The Key Players: Abe Camara (wide receiver/defensive back) and tailback Stephon Bland are the guys to watch for the Wolverines, offensively speaking. Camara is the big-play receiver for West Forsyth and Bland has proven himself a dependable, if not flashy, back. Bland has rushed for 795 yards on 152 carries — a 5.2 yard-per-carry average — with five touchdowns. He seems to be the kind of “five-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” back you want when you run the kind of balanced offense the Wolverines try to employ.
Quarterback, Drew Southern is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound sophomore who has improved with each start. He’s completing approximately 64 percent of his passes while passing for 875 yards and seven touchdowns to six interceptions. Camara is his favorite target with 35 catches, 616 yards and 8 receiving scores.
Defensively, West Forsyth doesn’t penetrate the opponent’s backfield much, at least according to stats. Only player, junior linebacker, Jack Hughes, is in double digits regarding tackles for losses and has more than three quarterback sacks. Hughes has 11 and six, respectively, in those categories. In the secondary, Camara is the leader there as well with a team-high two interceptions and six pass deflections.
For Newton, the playmakers are well known, at least over here in Covington. Mike Mathison, Robert Lewis and Jerrol Hines are a dangerous pass-catching trio. Adarius Thomas is 156 yards away from eclipsing the 1,000-yard plateau. Although LT Stowers’ 1,336 passing yards and 14 touchdowns leads the team by far, junior Neal Howard has been more than serviceable when he’s been called upon.
Banks alternated both pretty freely and regularly throughout the season. The question we’ll be watching for an answer to is how will Grant, who said Monday that he would take on offensive play-calling duties, decide to use his offensive weaponry.
Defensively, it’s been fun watching sophomore Nyland Green come into his own as a cornerback. Newton’s pass rush has taken a step or two back this year, but Cozbi Craig and Jeffery Cook have been increasingly aggressive in pass rush situations over the last few weeks.
West Forsyth wins…If its offensive balance can keep Newton’s defense off balance and guessing, which means its sophomore quarterback will have to do a good job of managing the game and moving the offense without creating a backbreaking turnover. Defensively, the Wolverines will have to bottle up Newton’s big play ability.
Newton wins…If it effectively puts aside the drama of the last week and focuses on football. This team may not have some of the household names on the roster as far as talent goes like some of the more recent squads. But most people who’ve seen the Rams play will agree that its talent is better than 4-6. With clean, disciplined play, this Newton team has the potential to be dangerous to anyone it plays.
The Prediction: Regardless of a win or loss, expect to see a much more focused and determined Newton team this week than you saw last week. The team will want to win for Grant and for the chances of extending its season, and the Rams seem to have a pretty vast athleticism advantage. They’ve been a big-play offense all year, so a couple of big plays early could be a tone setter. We’re actually picking Newton in this one. Score: Newton 31, West Forsyth 21.
What’s Next: The winner of this game will face either Central or North Gwinnett. If the Rams win and Central Gwinnett, a No. 4 seed, upsets top-seeded North Gwinnett, then Newton will host the next round at Sharp Stadium.