When Jaquan Henderson leaped to snag a pass from his quarterback Myron Middlebrooks, he could’ve easily been satisfied just by having the football.
But he wasn’t. The Newton senior safety turned, sidestepped a would-be tackler and darted down the sideline to complete the pick-six. But that wasn’t all.
After he got to the end zone — ball still in hand — he rounded the goalpost like a sprinter makes the homestretch turn on a track and then got mobbed by other members of the Newton defense who ran off the sideline to meet him.
Judging by the intensity of Henderson’s run and the ensuing celebration, one would’ve thought it was the fourth quarter in the state championship game. It wasn’t. It was just a Wednesday morning practice during fall break, and Newton was simply doing what it has been doing since it last played a game two weeks ago.
“We’re definitely excited about where we are as a team right now,” said Terrance Banks, now in his fourth year as Newton’s head coach. “You can see that with how the guys are flying around. I mean, you’re definitely excited any time your team gets a chance to play the team that’s supposed to be the best. It naturally wet’s your pallet.”
That tantalizing team Banks is referring to is Grayson, ranked No. 3 in Class AAAAAAA, according to the AJC, and ranked No. 1 in Georgia and No. 8 in the nation based on MaxPreps.com’s ratings.
The Grayson Rams also caught headlines over the summer for the amount of high profile football athletes who transferred in to create what looks like a bit of a high school super team.
This matchup was one circled on many calendars in the preseason as a marquee battle for the Rams, but that was when Newton started the year ranked No. 7, and before it tied with Class AAAA county rival Eastside, lost to Lowndes and got blasted by Archer 42-0 two weeks ago.
But according to junior quarterback Myron Middlebrooks, the bye week not only helped heal some wounded limbs, but it also aided in restoring some lost swagger.
“Oh, yeah. Yes sir. We definitely see ourselves still as that top 10 team,” Middlebrooks said. “It’s a big game, just for it being Grayson alone. But it’s also big because everybody (who was injured) being back is a good thing. We’ve got everybody healthy and playing together as a team now, instead of having certain key people being out.”
Middlebrooks attributes the midseason slump to a team that “just lost focus.” And perhaps Banks can understand why, given the youthfulness of his current squad.
“I think a lot of the expectations came from the fact that we had two or three guys who are awesome football players and had a lot of notoriety,” Banks said. “But I don’t think people realized how young we are.”
Newton graduated 33 seniors last year, including Romario Johnson who was a three-year starter at quarterback. Johnson passed for 1,960 yards rushed for 592 more and accounted for 23 total touchdowns in Newton’s 9-3 2015 campaign.
Middlebrooks, his junior replacement, has filled in admirably, throwing for 1,097 yards and 15 touchdowns to just five interceptions before going down with an injury. But Banks said, regardless of the talent, it takes youth and inexperience some time to create team chemistry.
“It’s one thing when you’re playing in relief of a guy, but it’s much different when you are the guy,” Banks said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys replacing those 33 seniors, and a lot of seniors who’ve never really played on Friday nights, so it took some time for those guys to gel,” he said.
The injury bug has also plagued the Rams, particularly at running back where sophomore Adarius Thomas was thrust into the limelight after position depth thinned out.
“If you would’ve told me back in the spring that I would have to start Darius, I would’ve laughed,” Banks said. “But, I mean, he is a football player with a tremendous football IQ. That’s what makes the difference. He’s a good football player who understands football.”
Banks and company also understand that it will take a gargantuan effort to go up to Grayson and pull off the upset over one of the nation’s top high school squads. And turning the ball over four times inside the 30-yard line like it did in the Archer loss can’t be a part of the plan.
Grayson comes in riding an impressive streak of momentum. After losing its first game to IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) on national television, and a subsequent close call against McEachern, Grayson’s been on a tear, outscoring its next five opponents 245-26.
But Newton is no slouch defensively, particularly when it comes to having speed and ball-hawking playmakers on that side of the ball — players like Henderson who is a Tennessee commit.
“(Henderson’s) been doing a lot of things for us,” Banks said. “We’ve preached all throughout these last two weeks up to the bye week, no turnovers on offense, and get turnovers on defense. And I think the way you seem Jaquan playing out here is showing that it’s getting into the boys’ minds. I tell them on defense, you’ve got to get a turnover. And when you get a turnover, you got to score. So he’s been definitely flying around. He knows Coach wants him to get the ball and take it to the house.”
If the Newton Rams can get a couple of turnovers and fortuitous ball bounces against the Grayson Rams Friday night, who knows? Stranger things have happened. And, according to Middlebrooks, the way the team is playing together now nothing would surprise him.
“Our goals are still in front of us,” he said. “We know that if we can just play together, we want to win this game and eventually a state championship. We have to come together as a group first, though. And I think that’s happening."