COVINGTON, Ga. — The high school football season is done in Newton County. Or is it?
Football — if not all high school sports — has become a year-round proposition. And after Eastside bowed out of the Class AAAA playoffs following a loss to No. 1 Blessed Trinity that ended its magical, improbable and historic 2018 campaign, sights now shift to taking care of what I call, “football season’s aftermath.”
That includes recruiting, managing staff shifts and changes, helping kids get it together academically, all-star/showcase games, etc. And by the time all of that gets finished, guess what? We’ll be back to winter conditioning in January in preparation for the 2019 football season.
So as the next-to-last piece that puts a bow on 2018, let’s examine the five things we’ve learned overall from the season, and the top five storylines we’ll be tracking as we start shifting our minds to 2019.
Five Things We Learned from 2018
1. Good coaching and culture can outrun better talent. I know. I know. Broken record, right? Well, in this age of star (recruiting) obsession, I believe it bares repeating. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you don’t need some “dudes” on your team in order to rise to elite proportions. As the old saying goes, “It’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes.” But if the Jimmys and Joes aren’t thriving in a well-coached, well-cultured environment, it really doesn’t matter what their 40-yard dash time or vertical is. It doesn’t matter if they can throw the ball 70 yards flat-footed, you won’t get the most out of the athletes you have with bad coaching in a bad culture.
Perhaps more than any other football team I’ve covered in almost a decade of doing this, this year’s Eastside Eagles squad embodied this. That’s not to say coach Troy Hoff’s squad doesn’t have legit talent. But even some of the Eagles’ players acknowledged some of their physical limitations. It does make you wonder, though, with the culture and coaching instilled there, what could things have been like with just a few more difference makers? At any rate, it just proves once again the importance of being as excellent — or more so — in the intangibles as you are in the tangible stuff.
2. Alcovy was a more talented team than its record showed. I don’t care what anyone says. You can’t say a team isn’t talented with almost half of its seniors being offered scholarships to play at the next level, no matter what division of college ball it may be. That’s the case with the formerly-Chris Edgar-coached Alcovy Tigers who finished 2-8 this season with another winless region campaign. It’s the flip side of the coin in the argument that it takes many more elements than mere talent alone to producing winning football — especially when you’re dealing with teenaged kids who can be emotionally fickle at times. And while I hate that things didn’t work out better for Edgar, it’s pretty cool to see him still actively involved in trying to help his kids secure college scholarships. Proves his heart was in a good place, despite the win column.
3. Camiel Grant, Jr. is a capable coach for the Newton program. Since former Newton Rams football coach Terrance Banks resigned and Grant has taken the reins of the program on an interim basis, support for Grant to become the program’s permanent answer has flooded in consistently. And this has come from current players and former players, parents and outside coaches alike. And it makes sense. Every time I talk to someone about what makes for an optimal coaching fit — not just for Newton High football, but for any Newton County athletic program, it never fails that someone will stress the importance of knowing how to navigate the culture in Covington and Newton County. Several big-named, high profile coaches have stepped down or been relieved of duties over the Georgia high school football landscape already. But to think that because they had success at bigger, shinier programs, that success will automatically and seamlessly transfer here would be a mistake.
Grant knows Newton football. He knows Newton County and Covington, period. He’s been around the program for a total of a decade. He’s got the respect of coaches, school staff, players and folks from the community that I’ve heard from. And more than anything, he has the understanding that — as good as Newton has been at times over the last six years — a status quo approach won’t cut it when trying to push that program to the next level.
4. That artificial turf renovation to Sharp Stadium can’t come soon enough. Believe it or not, there are some folks who are still decrying the fact that Eastside had to uproot from its cozy Sharp Stadium confines to go 20 minutes down the road to Social Circle to play a playoff football game almost a month ago now. Good thing the Eagles won against Burke County that night, or else we’d probably never hear the end of it if the season came to an end on a makeshift home field. That said, after talking to Tom Garrett, director of facilities for the Newton County Schools System, the SPLOST dollars for are already in place for the installment of an artificial turf surface. It probably won’t go down for another couple of years, but at least it’s in the plans. If it is to be that Sharp Stadium must continue housing all three GHSA football programs and Eastside soccer, the addition of a playing surface that can stand up to, not only the pounding and regular wear-and-tear but also the elements, is the least that can be done.
5. Newton County talent, as a whole, is on the rise. Maybe some of it is just because I’m sitting right in the county’s backyard as a sports editor, but I’ve noticed more people saying the name “Newton County” and calling out “Covington, Georgia” when talking about high caliber athletes, both in high school and in college. And I still maintain that for its size and for it to only have three GHSA high schools, the level of athletic talent that originates from here is amazing and plenteous. From those playing (or coaching, a la Tim Hyers of the Boston Red Sox) in the professional ranks, to those making an imprint collegiately, even down to the ones turning heads at the middle school level, the county’s becoming a mini-hotbed for athletic talent. Don’t argue with me on this.
Five Things We Still Don’t Know
1. When the local coaching carousel stops, who will be on board? As much as many people think the Newton hire should be a slam dunk in favor of the interim coach discarding that interim tag, nothing is known until it’s official. And there’s no doubt that a plethora of head coach aspirants have seen the potential at Newton and want to get in on the Class AAAAAAA football scene. Alcovy’s perhaps a different story. The Tigers have only had two coaches in its 13 seasons of existence. Both of those coaches, Kirk Hoffman and Chris Edgar, had been there since the school began. Obviously no one’s told me this, but you just get the feeling that Alcovy may want to reach outside of itself for this next hire. Will that actually happen? Time will tell.
2. Was this a “next-level” turning point season for Eastside football? Sometimes football teams have good or even great seasons, and it’s just that — a good or greatindividual season. But sometimes a team has one of those breakthrough campaigns that sends it soaring into another direction. Could this 12-1 year have been that “next dimension” launchpad for coach Hoff and company? To be sure, the program’s already solid. The Eagles have won less than seven games just twice in the last 13 years. Three region titles, two quarterfinals appearances and one trip to the semis since 2008 doesn’t render this past season a complete shock.
But the difference is that most of the best successes came while Rick Hurst was pacing the sidelines. This is Hoff’s program now, and after his fourth year at the helm, it looks like his stamp and style are firmly affixed to Eastside’s football operations. He’s added his collegiate coaching experience flare to the program, and this kind of success often attracts the attention of athletes who want to consistently play at a high level. How high can this program climb in Class AAAA, even with private school juggernauts at the top? In what ways will the momentum of this historic season carry over? Again, only time will tell.
3. Will there be any signing day surprises for local athletes? It’s been sort of a down year for Newton County football as far as having seniors with big, Division I offers. Eastside’s Jamari Brown, currently a Florida A&M commit, has 15 offers, many of which are D-1. Newton 3-star offensive lineman, Kendrick Carlton has a Louisville offer and picked up one from Virginia State the other day, but as far as Division I or Power Five-ish type stuff, so far that’s it. It doesn’t look like we’ll have many, if any, athletes signing during the December early signing period, but you never know. Look for most of our guys to ink those letters of intent during the traditional February time.
4. Who are the studs in waiting for the 2019 season? The 2020 class could potentially be another one that puts Newton County back on that big recruiting map. Alcovy’s got the twins, Andrae and Adrian Robinson who have been turning heads since before they began their sophomore years. Also, 1st Team All-Region 3-AAAAAA running back, NaTorien Holloway looked poised for a special season before the Alcovy offense stalled out. He was just a junior this year. Watch for Eastside quarterback, Noah Cook. After throwing for 2,000 yards and rushing for close to 400 more, he’ll be one to keep an eye on. Same for speedy defensive back, Jeff Haynes and kicker/punter, Ezra King. At Newton, it could be wideout Robert Lewis standing as the poster child for Power Five attention. He’s already got an offer from Rutgers of the Big 10. Jerrol Hines and Josh Hardeman on offense could emerge, along with defensive end Tyon Bigby. No doubt, there will be others who show up on the scene that we aren’t accounting for right now.
5. Which player is most deserving of player of the year accolades? We feel like we’ve got a pretty decent handle on most of our all-county team, including player of the year honors. It’ll all be revealed in our December 23 edition, by the way. But it’d still be cool to get reader feedback on who had the best season as an individual player this year? Was it Alcovy’s Jalen Banks? What about Eastside’s Taylor Carter or Noah Cook? Or perhaps Newton’s Robert Lewis? Watch for our just-for-fun Twitter poll this week