If you didn’t know any better, watching the Eastside Eagles play North Clayton Friday, you’d have thought coach Troy Hoff’s squad was fighting for their playoff lives instead of playing for second seed and hosting a first round game. In this week’s “Five Things” about Eastside, I’m going to make some claims about this Eastside team that may be somewhat bold, but given what I’ve seen, to me, they make sense. Here’s what Eastside taught me:
1. Eastside’s rushing and scoring with the best of Class AAAA: With 2,518 rushing including four 300-plus yard performances — Eastside ran for 357 yards Friday against North Clayton — 31 rushing touchdowns, averaging over seven yards per carry and scoring 34 points per contest, Eastside is running the ball and scoring at a clip comparable to, or better than some of the best teams in the state. In fact, of the seven top 10 ranked teams whose season rushing yardage totals were available, Eastside leads all schools in rushing yardage, and is second to only second-ranked Ridgeland in rushing touchdowns. Eastside’s doing it with a deep cast of runners, five of which have run for more than 200 yards on the season. This includes senior Tyon Davis and junior Taylor Carter who both have close to 700 yards each. Don’t forget about quarterback Brayden Harper who’s averaging seven yards a pop with eight touchdowns. The Eagles can come at you in so many ways on the ground, which makes them arguably more dangerous than a team with one workhorse tailback.
2. The only thing arguably more impressive than the run game is Eastside’s defense: Eastside’s 15.6 points per game allowed is tops in Region 4-AAAA. In the last two weeks, Eastside’s held opponents to seven scoreless quarters in eight quarters of football. Defensive linemen Spurgeon Gaither and Lamarius Benson have seemingly hit their stride, and Jaylon Lackey is a speedy, heady playmaker, along with Jamari Brown in the secondary. Then there’s gritty, smart guys like Tanner Feeney and others who have Eastside’s defense playing as well as its played arguably in the last two seasons.
3. This team may be better than last year’s team: No offense to that star-studded, senior-laden group coach Troy Hoff had last year, complete with 25 seniors — nine of whom went on to play college ball — with notable names like Georgia freshman, Eric Stokes. Lots of talent and lots of senior leadership was on that squad from 2016. But the thing that makes this year’s group perhaps more dangerous during playoff time is their health. Coaches will tell you that at this time of year, being healthy is almost a laughable concept. But compared to last year’s tattered team that came into the first round of the playoffs against Spalding, this year’s squad is almost in perfect health. Barring any in-practice injuries, and aside from some nicks, bruises and a small amount of players nursing deeper injuries, Eastside will face Baldwin Friday about as health as it can be.
4. This team is battle tested: Aside from the 40-0 loss to Class AAAAAAA Newton at the beginning of the season — a game Hoff won’t let you “throw out” in terms of the developmental trajectory of his team — Eastside has won, or had the chance to win, every game its played this year. And even in the No. 6 Woodward Academy loss, the 300-plus rushing performance, and the way the defense bowed up from time to time to limit one of the state’s most electrifying players, shows that this team can play with pretty much anybody. Hoff said the reason why he didn’t mind playing the Newtons and Oconee County’s and other talented teams in larger classifications is because he felt it would help his bunch be prepared for the toughest season of football, which is playoff time. A Friday night win may set up Eastside to be road warriors, traveling to a very talented Mary Persons team if Mary Persons beats Carver-Columbus. But nothing seems to rattle or intimidate this team, including tough road environments.
5. This team is confident: As Hoff was getting interviewed after the North Clayton game, just as he was beginning to talk about the stuff that he felt made his team tick most, tailback, Tyon Davis came in and video bombed his coach, with the Region 4-AAAA trophy in hand. Davis looked into the camera and, referring to the trophy, said: “It should say region champions, but we’ll take this.” To me, it showed that even as happy and satisfied as Eastside was with its second place region finish and No. 2 seed, this team knows it could’ve been — and perhaps should’ve been — better. And they aren’t afraid to say that. This kind of swagger is what’s needed to help anchor the Eagles when the big boys of Class AAAA come calling if they advance. And if Eastside can avoid another first round slip-up, don’t be shocked if you’re looking up a couple of weeks from now and still seeing the Eagles alive in the playoff bracket.