CONYERS, Ga. — If you cupped your ear and listened closely, there was a narrative that seemed to undergird Friday’s spring football game between Newton and Salem.
The narrative went a little something like this: Salem, with its bevy of college prospect-level talent, including several three-star-and-up recruits, is trending upward, while Newton — after having lost the likes of now-Clemson freshman Darnell Jefferies, veteran quarterback Myron Middlebrooks, and tons of talent in the trenches — may be trending downward.
Friday’s scoreboard, however, displayed a reminder of how premature such making such judgments on paper can be — especially three months away from the start of the 2018 season.
Newton dominated Salem 45-6, rolled up over 400 yards of total offense, showcased highlight reel worthy talent — both from known commodities such as tailback Adarius Thomas and wide receiver/defensive back Mike Mathison and Jerrol Hines, and new faces like transfer quarterback LT Stowers and new names like Greg Lewis and Tyrell Floyd.
And as for that narrative? Newton coach Terrance Banks doesn’t pay much attention to such things.
“We’re Newton High School. We know who we are,” Banks said after Friday’s win. “We’re not going to talk about anybody else. We focus on us. We’re not worried about anybody else. People know who we are. Our resume speaks for itself, and our guys who came before this group left a legacy. We know to worry about us and everything else comes out in the wash.”
At times, the big plays seemed to come in droves, but the first Newton touchdown was one, emphatic in nature, that seemed to set the tone for the Rams’ domination.
It came when returning quarterback Neal Howard hit Thomas on a swing pass toward the left sideline. Thomas caught the ball, turned up field and, when met at the goal line by a Salem defender, lowered his shoulder and barreled right over him into the end zone.
Thomas’ touchdown set the stage for a night of physical play from the Rams — something Banks says was exactly what he was looking for in the spring session’s culmination.
“The number one thing I wanted to see was great effort,” Banks said. “I wanted to see them give great effort and compete, and I got both. The biggest thing we talk about on our team is no loafing. Effort can’t be coached. Mistakes can be fixed. It’s the spring, but I’m proud of the display they gave.”
If there was a player of the game recognition to be handed out, that distinction could go to rising senior Michael Mathison — although several Newton players had standout moments and performances.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder caught three touchdown passes, including one improbable scoring grab where he caught a pass from Stowers in the flat, broke one tackle, stepped left then juked right in a crowd of defenders and out-raced everyone wearing gold and white down the sideline for a 65-yard score on the first play of the third quarter.
Earlier, Mathison was on the receiving end of a 28-yard touchdown pass from Neal Howard where he leaped and caught the ball over the back of a Salem defender in the back of the end zone for Newton’s second score of the game, and had another where he reached up and high-pointed the ball, again in the back-corner of the end zone.
Defensively, he was just as a stellar, catching one wayward pass by Salem quarterback Donald Wilson with one hand, then dodging his way across the field for a 22-yard return.
Mathison has been a bit overlooked due to his size — some recruiting services list him at 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9. But Banks said Friday’s performance should turn some heads, if not prove why heads should be turning.
“Mike just displayed that he is as good as we’ve been telling everybody he is,” Banks said.
Mathison himself took the performance in stride.
“We came out tonight and dominated and just showed out,” Mathison said. “This is my first year playing defensive back, and I know I’m getting better at it. The coaches just want me to make plays and be a ballhawk, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Summertime quarterback dual looming
Banks acknowledged his excitement for having a true quarterback battle with three signal callers vying for the spot in the fall.
Howard has the experience edge after coming in last season to start in place of Myron Middlebrooks who was injured in the Archer game. The 5-foot-10 rising junior played admirably down the stretch of the season, including leading the Rams to a near-playoff win at Parkview.
Howard threw for 103 yards and two scores, and showed off some scrambling ability and improved arm strength and release time.
Meanwhile, Stowers missed out on a touchdown pass when what would’ve been a fourth receiving touchdown for Mathison was called off due to offensive pass interference. Stowers showcases a strong arm and pretty decent footwork. At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, he’s clearly the bigger of the two.
Rising sophomore Domenico Roddy also got in some playing time, leaving Banks feeling good about his the quarterback competition.
“I think all three of them competed well,” Banks said. “They made a lot of mistakes that we’ll coach up. But iron sharpens iron. They know to work hard every day because they all want the job.”
Banks used Howard’s situation as a cautionary tale that he hopes will keep all three quarterbacks hungry to prepare to start, regardless of where they fall on the depth chart.
“Neal Howard was the third string quarterback last spring, and then he’s out there starting at Parkview,” he said. “You never know when your number is going to get called, so you have to be ready for the moment when your name is called.”
Stowers said he's enjoying the competition and the budding relationship with Howard and the rest of the signal callers.
"It’s very interesting," Stowers said. "Neal’s a good competitor as well, and I feel good being around with people I can compete with. It’s only gonna make me and him better. I feel like if we give our all to each other, no matter who starts we’re just gonna make each other better."
Names to note
Banks hesitated to call names of specific players who stood out in either the spring game or the two-week spring session. But the ones he did call — linebacker Cozbi Craig, Thomas, offensive lineman Kendrick Carlson — were some already identified as potential standouts in 2018.
However, some lesser know athletes turned heads against Salem.
Josh Hardeman. The rising junior showed a couple of flashes in limited 2017 action. He had just nine total carries for 73 yards, but scored two touchdowns. Hardeman looks to join Thomas for a formidable 1-2 tailback punch this season, and on a couple of runs he showed exactly why both Banks and assistant coach Josh Skelton have been high on him.
Hardeman showed good burst and a slashing running style as well as one-cut-and-go ability on a 22-yard touchdown run Friday against Salem. He also came up from his strong safety spot and filled in a running lane beautiful while applying a bone-crushing hit on a Salem ball carrier.
Jerrol Hines. Always known as a bit of a jitterbug, Hines runs routes and runs with the ball more decisively than he did last season. He should take on a much larger load in the Rams’ this year.
Greg Lewis. The rising junior is another tough, downhill runner with good speed and size. He has a chance to be solid as an outside linebacker as well.
Diondre Glover. This kid looks the kind of athlete who can line up just about anywhere and be impactful. He had several catches in Friday’s spring game that he broke for long gains just out of sheer athleticism.
Tyrell Floyd. The game had been decided. The clock had wound down, but Newton had one more big play in its arsenal. It came when Floyd broke free out of quagmire and bolted down the middle of the field for a 60-plus yard score to cap off the game’s scoring. You may not have heard of him, but rest assured, he possesses some of the same team speed that many of the Rams’ regulars boast.
Three things to watch in the summer
- QB competition. Which one of the three will emerge? It looks like a two-man race between Howard and Stowers. Summer workouts, including 7v7s should help sort some things out with QB-WR chemistry.
- Down in the trenches. Banks believes he has the pieces to be serviceable if not dominant on the offensive and defensive lines. But lots of development still needs to happen.
- Secondarily speaking. Several seasoned contributors are gone, but players like rising senior safety Khalil Wilcox and corner Dejuan Brown should shore things up. It’ll be fun to watch Mathison’s continuing development.