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PREP FOOTBALL: Trench Warfare
An in-depth look at Newton County’s offensive, defensive lines
Newton Football
Newton High School sophomore Justin Benton highlights an extremely talented crop of linemen in the county in 2020. - File Photo | The Covington News

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 second installment of the series, which examines the linemen.

COVINGTON, Ga. — Football games are won and lost in the trenches.

It goes without saying that linemen are frequently overlooked in terms of their production value for a team. While skill position players capture attention with their flashiness, it’s the big boys along the offensive and defensive lines who are relied on so heavily to help carry a team to victory. They can create time and space for an offense to operate, or set the tone for the entire defensive unit.

The Covington News recently spoke with the three local GHSA head coaches to discuss how their offensive and defensive lines look midway through July.

Alcovy High School

Second-year head coach Jason Dukes is placing a strong emphasis on his Tigers winning the battle at the line of scrimmage this fall.

Dukes, a former offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, understands as well as anyone that success on both sides of the ball begins in the trenches. As Alcovy strives to build off last year’s two-win season, the club will attempt to put the right personnel in place to lean on opponents and assert its will.

“It’s very important to dominate the line of scrimmage,” Dukes said. “The first thing you have to do from a defensive standpoint is stop the run. If you’re able to do that and get the offense in a situation where they become one-dimensional, that doesn’t give them the opportunity to be flexible.”

The Tigers ran a four-man front on defense last season. Despite their tendency to blitz heavily — with a lot of man coverage being played behind it — they struggled to put opposing quarterbacks on the ground.

“We had opportunities last year to get the quarterback on the ground and didn’t. That’s something that we have to get better at this year,” Dukes admitted.

Seniors Jaden Thrower and Andrew Bussey will play significant roles as leaders along the defensive line for the Tigers. Other impact players Dukes and his staff are looking to break out this season include junior Duval Hill, sophomore CJ Cook and sophomore Christian Lewis.

Eastside High School

The Eagles are bringing back a group of experienced players along their defensive line, headlined by seniors Seth Martin, Kevin Napier and Sambo Button.

Eastside entered the 2019 campaign lacking a veteran presence, but that trio progressed throughout the fall. They adjusted to playing within the system and were the backbone of a defense that allowed just 13.9 points per game over their final eight contests after giving up 100 points combined in the first two games of the year.

“We were really young last year and inexperienced to some degree. I think later in the year we were playing a lot better football than early on, which is what you always want to happen,” head coach Troy Hoff said. “Our guys were able to play faster, think less and start timing out schemes and technique.”

The strength of Eastside’s defensive unit is measured by its ability to shut down the run game. If the defensive line can fill gaps and stuff the ground attack, they’ll set the rest of the unit up for success throughout the night.

“Like most defenses in high school football, it starts with being stronger up front and stopping the run,” Hoff said. “Everything else is kind of built around that standpoint.”

On the offensive side of the ball, former sophomore sensation Jalen Farmer is continuing to progress going into his junior year. The 6-foot 5-inch guard, who was offered by Georgia Tech this spring, enters the fall listed at 310 pounds. Farmer and senior Garrison King are the leaders of a line that has received high praise from the coaching staff all offseason.

“I’ll say it right now — the offensive line is one of our best groups as far as being here and getting their work in,” Hoff said. “We’ve started the work with them every day, and they’ve set the standard really high. So that group as a whole, they’ve done a really good job.”

Eastside’s offensive line is far from a finished product. Hoff’s staff is keeping an eye on several close battles for positions, and they’re nowhere near ready to pencil in the Week 1 starters on either side of the ball.

Hoff welcomes that competition. 

“There’s always times where there can be a letdown. But if there’s a collective effort of holding each other accountable and there is competition for the spot, that usually brings out the best in guys,” he said. “And again, that’s across the board. With that group of linemen, with some depth on both sides, that’s going to help a lot.”

Newton High School

Any conversation about the Rams’ defensive line naturally begins with Justin Benton.

Listed at 6-3 and 245 pounds, the defensive end garnered national attention as a freshman last fall by recording 76 tackles, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. Now, as he prepares for his sophomore campaign, he’s taken on the added responsibility of being a vocal leader for the defense.

“I think he’s excited about being a leader,” Newton head coach Camiel Grant Jr. said. “There’s no arrogance in it. He’s truly a 100% team guy, and he wants the rest of the guys to have the same success that he’s having.”

Benton has emerged as one of the leaders for the unit, but he’ll certainly have his work cut out for him. Newton will be tasked with replacing a graduating class that was oozing with top-tier talent along the defensive line.

“It’s going to be tough to be as good as that defensive line was last year. That’s a tall order,” Grant Jr. admitted. He noted that his staff’s expectations always remain high, but he anticipates a slight drop-off in production due to the loss of an extremely talent class.

“But I think that we can still be pretty good,” he countered. “I still think the strength is going to be on the back end, but we’ll be solid up front. We’ll have more depth.”

Joining Benton on the defensive line this season will be junior Elijah Zollicoffer — the 6-5, 310-pound two-way tackle with offers from the likes of Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky — senior Richard Rockett and senior Jaden Blackwell.

Newton’s defensive line is shifty and explosive. If they can stay healthy, they’ll be able to disrupt backfields and make life easier for the Rams’ lethal secondary. 

Along the offensive line, Zollicoffer is the first guy that jumps off the page. In Grant Jr.’s eyes, however, junior center Oro Avery will be the glue for the entire offense. Avery converted from linebacker to center as a sophomore and quickly earned the starting gig, blowing the staff away with his natural ability.

“We looked at him and we felt like because he’s a very smart kid, he’s a very even-keel kid and he works extremely hard, we thought he’d be the perfect center,” Grant Jr. explained. “He did a tremendous job for us last year as a sophomore. That’s the kid that I think is flying under the radar. As he goes, so do we.”