2007 Eastside Eagles Under nest of pressure
Experienced Eagles have something else to prove
In 1981, “Under Pressure” was a big hit for Queen.
For the Eastside Eagles, it’s arguably their theme song entering the 2007 season, which begins Friday against the crosstown rival Newton Rams.
Last year, the Eagles posted an overall 5-5 record. Previously, they had lost a string of 20 consecutive games, making 2006 all the more special. Based on their significant turnaround, even more is expected of the Eagles this year.
“Sure, there is (pressure) and that’s a good thing,” said Eastside head coach Rick Hurst. “I never want to be in a place where I wasn’t expected to win — I couldn’t work in a place like that.”
After all, that is the reason why Hurst got into this position in the first place — to win games. As a result, he has achieved that goal — now he has to sustain it.
“We had a great winter and a good summer,” acknowledged Hurst, “and I think we’re ahead of where we were last year at this time. I’d love to win our sub-region or region, but the ultimate goal is to get into that field of 32.”
Overall, Hurst feels at ease with his offense, defense and special teams. But it’s the kicking game that he has been thoroughly impressed with, particularly the leg of Yanrick Tinker.
“I think our kicking game is much better,” said Hurst. “Yanrick has a strong leg and had never kicked a football before until this year. Kicking off, he’s been putting it inside the five-yard line and end zone.”
But until the official season begins, only then will Hurst know where his squad stands.
“I’m not too concerned about our physical aspect,” said Hurst. “I’m worried about our mental aspect. My biggest fear is not knowing how to handle success, because (we) haven’t had it here.”
Taking the snaps once again at quarterback will be junior Justin Wray, who earned All-County and AllRegion honors last year as a sophomore.
“Justin has progressed and is starting to see the whole picture now,” said Hurst. “It’s starting to slow down for him, (and) he’s starting to read defenses.”
Last year, Wray completed 74 of 153 passes for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns, including seven interceptions. In addition, Wray had 415 rushing yards (73 attempts) and five touchdowns.
According to Hurst, Wray was too inconsistent. In addition, his footwork needed vast improvement, which at times forced him to overcompensate by using his arm.
“He’s done a really good job of working on it,” said Hurst. “But he’s not a practice player — he’s a gamer. Justin has got to understand that as good as he is right now, he could be better if he practiced perfect everyday.”
Sophomore Jake Casteel is the backup quarterback should anything happen to Wray, from a physical or mental perspective.
“Jake could lead this football team without a doubt,” said Hurst. “There is a big drop off athletically, but he does some things very, very well. He has good leadership skills and I’m not afraid of using him.”
With six legitimate running backs, each capable of racking up mounds of yardage, Hurst recognized that is his deepest position and perhaps biggest advantage.
Seniors Larenzo Echols (387 rushing yards, four touchdowns), Maurice Gaither and Johnny Norrington (303 rushing yards, three touchdowns) return with the speed Eastside will need for its ground attack. Junior Tony Atwater returns, in addition to sophomores Bridecous Aiken and Greg Griffith.
“I feel like any of those guys can make something happen,” praised Hurst. “All of them have good hands out of the backfield, too.”
Last year, Echols and Norrington combined for 17 receptions for 411 yards and four touchdowns.
Broderick Alexander (61 tackles, seven sacks) — a junior transfer from Newton — will also see significant playing time, both offensively and defensively.
According to Hurst, each year he enters the season wanting to throw the ball as much as run it, 50-50 straight up. He’s done it before with other programs and had great success.
“It makes it very tough on defenses,” reasoned Hurst, “but I’ve learned that if we are running the ball down your throat, why throw it?”
Based on Eastside’s style of play, the running backs will also serve as receivers. But the primary wide receivers are juniors Andrico Bailey (24 receptions, 562 yards and four touchdowns) and Antarios Terrell (eight receptions, one touchdown), including sophomore Jerome Ivey.
The offensive line welcomes five returning players, including four seniors — Jordan Ritchey (left tackle), Kyle Durand (left guard), Russell Corley (center) and Brandon Durepo (right tackle), as well as junior James Johnson (right guard).
Durand, who started all 10 games last season, led the Eagles with 27 pancake blocks.
“Experience-wise I feel pretty good about it,” said Hurst. “I think this is the best group of offensive linemen that we’ve had.”
Defensively, the Eagles are just as talented, if not more. Their previous success should keep Eastside in each and every game.
However, the Eagles lost two key players due to injury — Karl Williams (36.5 tack- les, team-high 6.5 sacks) and Justin McKelvey (20.5 tackles, 2.5 sacks). It was devastating to not only the players, but also Hurst.
“After that happened, I was worried,” said Hurst.
But the head coach received an unexpected and pleasant bolt from the blue when Eastside basketball players Jacory Maddox and Rashad Hill showed up in his office one day wanting to play football.
“They were two of our biggest surprises this year,” admitted Hurst.
For the secondary, two of the four starters are back — senior Kaleb Pass (free safety) and Echols (22.5 tackles, three fumble recoveries).
“I can’t say enough about Kaleb,” praised Hurst. “He’s a great kid (who) made the best of an opportunity, and I can always count on him. Kaleb is going to have a chance to play somewhere after this year.”
Pass recorded a team-high 61.5 tackles last year, including two interceptions and one fumble recovery. In addition, he had four pass break-ups.
Two of the three inside linebackers return — Gaither and senior William White (35.5 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles). Middle linebacker Bo Childers, a senior, will also help anchor the defense.
“Bo is probably one of our better athletes on the team,” complimented Hurst.
The outside linebackers include seniors Cale Davis and Aaron Malcolm. Freshman Quay Maddox will more than likely play a lot in passing situations.
“Aaron is more of a runstopper,” said Hurst, “so we’ll use them interchangeably, but I feel pretty good (about) them right now.”
Senior Andrew Vazquez is another returning starter who is capable of seeing significant playing time on both sides of the football.
Despite their experience, in order for the Eagles to advance to the postseason they must do a better job in third and long situations, meaning eliminate as many as possible by succeeding on first and second down.
“That’s one of the things we’ve got to improve on offensively,” admitted Hurst.
And after the 10th game of the season, where do Hurst and the Eagles hope to stand?
“I hope to be playing 11,” smiled Hurst.
Superbad: Eastside’s Johnny Norrington runs the ball against rival Newton last year. Norrington is one of several lethal running backs and receivers that the Eagles will utilize this season. In 2006, the Eagles were 5-5 overall.