Third time might be the charm
With the playoffs set to kick off tonight at 7:30 p.m., Eastside will attempt another run to the Georgia Dome for that elusive state championship. Let's take a look at what needs to happen for the Eagles to get past their opener and beyond. An improved and experienced Carnes is the key:
Quarterback Califf Carnes is one of only two offensive players from last year's team which made it to the semifinals. Carnes is poised to do more this time around. And he'll need to. Gone is All-State running back Git Aiken. Aiken carried the load last year while Carnes was more of a game manager. Think Trent Dilfer in Baltimore when the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000. Carnes will have to do more this year staring tonight if Eastside is going to win. The Eagles are young in the backfield and neither Alex Smith nor Chavis Griggs have playoff experience. The offensive line is young save for Lincoln Temple and overall, those two areas aren't as strong as they were last season. Carnes will need to make more plays in the passing game for Eastside to win. He's a better quarterback and up to the task. What's more is he has weapons to throw too. Dante Blackmon and Quan Moten are the deep threats Eastside didn't have last year. Canes' biggest challenge will be limiting mistakes. He's still prone to forcing the ball at times but has become a very good decision maker overall. Defense wins championships:
Eastside head coach Rick Hurst was an offensive coach throughout his career before taking the Eagles' head job. As
the offensive coordinator at Americus in the mid '90s, he nearly won it all relying heavily on the passing game. Make no mistake about it though, he knows defense is what wins high school state championships. If that's the case, Eastside is in good shape. Led by the formidable defensive front of Sheldon Rankins, Shaquille Huff and the non-stop motor behind Jerrell Crowder, Eastside's defense is very strong. With Kevis Bell patrolling the middle of the field and an improved Blake Rouse as well as the emergence of Cody Sandler at linebackers, the Eagles' are hard to move the football on. The one question mark may be at defensive back where they're undersized. Then again, most teams don't have Champ Bailey-sized DBs so as long as their technique is sound, they should be okay. The bottom line is, the defensive line is hard to block and Eastside imposes its will the longer the game goes on. Their defense will keep them in every game and tonight will be the first test. Special teams makes a difference:
If you've followed college football the past decade or so, you may be familiar with Virginia Tech's penchant for making plays on special teams. The Hokies play that phase of the game so well that, well, they're known for it. And in high school, execution in special teams can be the difference between a win or a loss. Eastside does a good job in kick coverage and finally struck for a return last week with Lance Davis. More importantly though, Eagle kicker/punter Cody Sandler is a weapon. His ability to rack up touchbacks on kickoffs and pin teams deep on punts gives the defense an advantage.
"It's hard for high schools to go 80 yards and score," Hurst said. "When you ask a team to do that all the time, it makes it even tougher."
Sandler has a big leg and can hit from 50 yards. With high school rules giving the other team the ball on the 20 after a missed field goal, it makes gambling on a long field goal an easy decision. If the Eagles can get him one early — maybe something inside of 30 yards, it could end up helping later in tonight's game. Eastside has a decided advantage in the kicking game over most opponents. Looking ahead:
Coaches hate to talk about it but trust me, they all do it. Looking at the playoff bracket. You won't catch Hurst talking about it so I'll do it for him.
Westside, Macon will be a tough first round opponent. But should the Eagles get past them, the fun begins. Round two would most likely be a return trip to Cairo. I've even looked at the forecast for that game. Zero chance of rain. Cairo won the whole thing in 2008 after dispatching Eastside 23-6 along the way. If the Eagles were to get past that game, it gets better with a possible rematch against Carrolton. Granted, that would be dependent on Carrolton making it to the third round which hasn't happened in a while, thanks in large part to none other than Eastside who has knocked them out in the second round in each of the past two years. Should the Eagles make it that far, I like that matchup. Carrolton head coach Ryvan Teague has yet to figure out Eastside's zone blocking scheme and the Eagles could ride that to the semifinals for a second straight year. Should that happen, they'd likely matchup against, you guessed it, Peach County with a berth in the title game at stake again. Many believe the Trojans are the odds on favorite to repeat as state champions. Sandy Creek looms as their toughest opponent will probably be Ridgeland in the semis.
To say the road to the Dome is tough is an understatement. Eastside needs a lot to go right to get there. But the Eagles won't be scared of those teams. They need a good start tonight.