There’s a saying that typically gets applied to a sports team’s quest to win titles. It goes a little something like this:
Defense wins championships.
If I may, I’d like to extend that mantra and add in the word “chemistry,” as in team chemistry. And that goes for whether you have star players on your team or not.
It’s one thing to see stars flung into the night sky. But a constellation doesn’t happen unless certain stars are aligned in a particular order.
What does this bit of elementary astronomy have to do with football and the aforementioned addition to one of the world’s most recognizable sports cliches? Well, it’s simple. A football team with a ton of star power means little if there isn’t something greater at work in that team that pulls it all together.
I think about the New England Patriots, and the NFL dynasty they’ve created. I consider the fact that their biggest and brightest star, quarterback Tom Brady, was essentially a draft day nobody when he was selected in the sixth round with the 199th pick.
His stardom was one that had to be crafted over time with a combination of good coaching, great work ethic and good fortune. But even as it began to become clear that Brady was evolving into something special, it’s arguable that many of his teams — yes even those Super Bowl winning squads — weren’t exactly packed and overflowing with big time household names.
Turns out, New England didn’t need them. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they developed a winning culture, a system that accentuated strengths and keyed on exploiting favorable matchups on either side of the ball and a cache of players — some of them otherwise no names — who cared more about winning than who got the credit or who looked good doing it.
And, listen. I’m not saying the 2018 Newton Rams are about to suddenly morph into the New England Patriots of Georgia high school football — and there are probably several other great examples of chemistry-built, championship caliber teams to draw a better comparison too.
But I will say this: Having been around this team, even just in spring ball and summer workouts, something seems different.
This is no disrespect to any of the previous two Newton squads I’ve seen nor the gifted ones I hadn’t seen. Teams that were laden with star power. Think J.J. Holloman (now at Georgia), Jaquan Henderson (Georgia Tech), Darnell Jefferies (Clemson), Kurt Taylor (Michigan), Toyous Avery (West Virginia), Steven Montac (South Carolina). And there are more. But just those six alone help you understand the kind of star power that’s come through Newton County’s largest high school.
But here’s where my transparency of thought comes: When I considered the type of talent that’s come through Newton and I’ve looked at the way the teams have finished — Rams squads have won more than six games only four times since 2003, those four coming in the six-year Terrance Banks coaching era — I’ve often wondered why.
Why are these teams seemingly underachieving? With that kind of talent, shouldn’t you expect more than six and seven-win seasons and a first-round ouster from the state playoffs?
Some may argue coaching. Some may argue the difficulty in playing in regions with state champion juggernauts and blue chip talent like Tucker, Grayson and Archer. Some even bring up the difficulty of Newton’s ability to compete with other Class AAAAAAA schools that have an embarrassment of riches — money and otherwise.
But one thing nobody ever raises as an issue is lack of talent.
Fast forward to this year, and at least on paper, this may be one of the most underwhelming years Newton football has seen, talent wise, in the last decade or so. Only one player — three-star lineman Kendrick Carlton who stands 6-feet-5, 315 pounds and holds an offer from Louisville — is listed on 247sports.com’s 200-player list of top athletes in Georgia.
No fewer than two have made that list in the last three years.
What does it all mean? Is it a rebuilding season for Newton? Should expectations be tempered as the Rams get set to battle another top-heavy Region 8-AAAAAAA with Grayson and Archer fielding rosters full of Division I and Power Five caliber talent?
Not according to Newton senior linebacker Cozbi Craig.
“We got a motto called, ‘the next man up,’ and I really feel like, because of that motto, we’ve all got the same mentality, the same brotherhood, the same effort,” Craig said. “Nobody thinks anyone is better than anybody else, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure everybody’s on the same page.”
Granted, the 2018 season is still 32 days from kickoff, but from what I’ve already seen out of this Newton bunch from winter conditioning to spring game dominance over a Salem team, also rife with 247sports.com prospects, to the lunch pail mindset the Rams have taken to its summer workouts and camps, I’m beginning to believe what Craig speaks of is more than just your run-of-the-mill preseason hype talk.
Seems like the coaches believe that too.
“We’re just a bunch of guys who believe in each other and are ready to prove everybody wrong,” said Newton assistant coach Josh Skelton.
Skelton’s take is of particular interest as he’s the team’s recruiting coordinator. Which means he doesn’t need my column to tell him about the perceived lack of star power on this year’s team.
But across the board, you can tell nobody in blue and white seems to really care about that. And when it’s time to look at the 2018 season through the lenses of retrospect, that could turn out to be the team’s biggest strength.
“Before, on a lot of those other teams, you had players who carried around that super star status,” Craig said. “Sometimes it felt like players would believe they were higher than everybody else, and better to where they’d think, ‘I’m better and I don’t have to do it all like these other guys.’ But this year, we’ve actually got those players willing to pick the other guy up.
“Even (wide receiver) Mike Mathison, the guy we all look at like he’s a mutant, he’s the same way. He actually wants to help the next man.”
We’ll get to see what it all looks like on the field when the Rams kick off 2018 against crosstown rivals Alcovy and Eastside. Then a trip to Class AAAAA perennial powerhouse Buford on September 14 should give a greater glimpse at how this team stacks up with one of the state’s elite programs.
Even if it can find a way to get through the non-region schedule unfazed, there are still back-to-back trips to Archer and Grayson to contend with. But whereas many teams that come equipped with star power already present have to find ways to conjure up the necessary team chemistry, Newton seems to be already a step ahead in that regard.
For that reason, Craig says there’s no goal-diluting happening at 1 Ram Way this year.
“It’s still the same,” he said. “Actually, we’re trying to go higher. We’re not trying to be satisfied with being first-round (playoffs) contenders like we have been in the past. We’re not just trying to be 604 or 7-3. The goal is always gonna be a championship, but coaches always preach one week at a time, one step at a time first.”
It’s a long season that hasn’t even begun yet. But if creating a brotherhood culture of championship-level team chemistry is one of those first steps, it may already be safe to say, mission accomplished.
Gabriel Stovall is the sports editor of the Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @GabrielStovall1.