Editor’s note: Throughout the summer, The Covington News will be previewing the 2020 prep football season by breaking down the Newton County teams by position. This is the first installment of the series, which examines the quarterbacks.
COVINGTON, Ga. — There’s no position in sports quite like the quarterback of a football team.
Right or wrong, quarterbacks are ofttimes given more credit than any other individual for a team’s success. On the flip side of the coin, they’re also usually under the most scrutiny.
While it’s universally understood that it takes a full team to win a game — let alone compete for a championship — the question first asked of most football programs when entering a new campaign is, ‘Who will lead the offense under center?'
In Newton County, all three Georgia High School Association programs will have fresh faces leading the way during the 2020 season. Newton and Eastside will be looking to replace graduated veterans, while Alcovy finds itself in the midst of a transitional period.
All three head coaches spoke with The Covington News this week to discuss how their quarterback rooms are shaping up heading into the final week of June.
Alcovy High School
Jason Dukes’ first season as head coach at Alcovy saw the Tigers experiment at quarterback late in the year.
Sophomore M.J. Stroud was tabbed as the starter going into the 2019 campaign. Touted as one of the best receivers in the area as a freshman, he underwent the growing pains of transitioning into a new position, but shone brightly under the spotlight.
By season’s end, however, Dukes realized that Stroud’s athleticism could be better utilized by plugging him in at different spots on the field. So prior to the Tigers’ season finale against Greenbrier, he handed the starting quarterback job to freshman Ashton Evans.
As he now prepares for his sophomore year, Evans is slated to begin the season as Alcovy’s starting quarterback. Despite his lack of experience — he took limited snaps throughout the season when Stroud dealt with injuries prior to making his lone varsity start — Dukes believes the young gunslinger is up for the task.
“It’s one thing to throw a green freshman in at the beginning of the year and expect him to successful. There’s another thing to have him kind of be a backup for the majority of the year and then feel comfortable putting him in at the end of the year,” Dukes said. “He is a good player.”
While Evans appears to be in the driver’s seat, Dukes noted that the evaluation period is still ongoing. Evans showcases a stronger arm than Stroud, but Stroud’s ability to extend plays with his legs while also making some quality throws leaves him in the mix.
“MJ, I believe, is a kid that can help us in several different positions,” Dukes said. “You can expect to see him moved all around the field, including taking snaps at quarterback.”
The Tigers operated their offense out of the spread formation in Dukes’ first season at the helm. Their plan is to run a similar scheme, but with a heavier emphasis on offensive linemen winning battles in the trenches.
Breaking in a new quarterback isn’t always an easy task. It’s made even more difficult when a pandemic causes an unorthodox schedule, resulting in no 7-on-7 drills or passing camps before July — and no timetable for their return.
Fortunately, Alcovy is in the same boat as every other team in the GHSA. And while the search continues for answers about when football teams can resume standard operating procedures, Dukes is ensuring his kids — including his quarterbacks — remain mentally prepared.
“We haven’t even been given a schedule to return to school next year. If you constantly think about that, it can paralyze you from preparing for the things that you need to do right now and today,” Dukes said. “Our focus as a team is on taking every day for that day and doing our absolutely best job in getting better.”
Eastside High School
The Eagles are tasked with replacing a three-year starter at quarterback this season.
Noah Cook graduated from Eastside and will be taking the field for Garden City Community College this fall. Stepping in to fill Cook’s shoes will be senior Jaylen Woods, who spent last season as one of Cook’s primary targets at wide receiver.
Eastside head coach Troy Hoff believes the experience Woods garnered from starting at receiver on Friday nights — in addition to serving as Cook’s backup — will pay dividends when the bright lights hit this year.
“I think it’s helped him see the big picture from playing receiver and now being in both spots,” Hoff said. “As far as moving forward in our offense, he’s got a real solid grasp of what we do because he’s been doing it. It’s a new role for him, obviously, but at the same time he’s done an excellent job of transitioning into it.”
Last year, Eastside sliced up opponents with an up-tempo spread offense. Woods and Cook are their own players, and tweaks will be needed to tailor the team to the new quarterback, but Hoff plans to continue taking a similar schematic approach to the offense.
“As coaches, I think the part of our job — the main part of our job — is to make changes work with our personnel,” Hoff said. “I think we’re flexible enough in our schemes that we can mold it to the players we have and see what Jaylen likes to throw, what he’s comfortable with.”
Woods’ transition into the spotlight will be interesting to watch. While his varsity experience at wideout gives him a leg up over many first-year starters, Eastside’s staff understands the approach they must make to afford the new guy time to adjust to his role.
“I know the first night under center will be different, but our approach with him is to play football. It doesn’t have to all be on him,” Hoff said. “That’s part of our job as coaches is to have a diverse enough attack where it can spread the ball out to run or pass, so it’s not all on the quarterback to have to win it every night.”
Newton High School
After the departure of senior quarterback Neal Howard, rising junior Jevarra Martin has emerged as the favorite to lead the Rams offense in 2020.
The left-hander has piled muscle onto his six-foot, four-inch frame this summer and is set to enter July at roughly 210 pounds. Martin is still working to correct his footwork and nail down his timing, but his build, experience and leadership qualities have made him a frontrunner for Newton.
“I don’t expect anything less than Jevarra coming out and really moving us forward. It’s his job to lose,” Newton head coach Camiel Grant Jr. said.
Martin was the ace of Newton’s baseball staff this spring and has started for the club since his freshman year. Grant Jr. stated that despite it being another sport, he believes Martin’s experience of starting at the varsity level — notably being in a position that isolates him on the mound and calls for the team to lean on him — will transition well into playing quarterback.
Martin had a close relationship with Howard during his time with the Rams. The two have continued working out and throwing together this summer as Howard has taken it upon himself to help groom his replacement.
Grant Jr. believes that Martin has shown enough growth — both at the the mental and physical level — to prove that he’s ready to control Newton’s spread attack.
“Jevarra understands what we’re doing on offense,” he said. “He has a different skill set than Neal; he’s more of a pocket passer. He can push the ball downfield a little bit more with his arm strength. Some things we may feature a little bit different than last year. We’re excited and we think he’s ready.”
Waiting in the wings for the Rams this season will be rising freshman Riley Scruggs. After showing tremendous potential during his eighth grade season, there’s a lot of hype surrounding the young gunslinger. He’ll need time to adjust to the speed of varsity competition, but could make a splash for the Rams in a year or two if he continues to develop.
“We’re excited that he’s going to be able to push Jevarra a little bit and create some competition in the room,” Grant Jr. said. “I’m also excited about what he can do for on the JV team as he learns.”