Class 5A blog: This week’s six-pack of games to watch

Eastside faces tough Region 8 opener with Flowery Branch

The Eastside football has quietly become one of the most stable programs in Class 5A. The Eagles aren’t real flashy; they get it done with a good defense and a solid running game. They just win and contend. This year is no exception.

Eastside has emerged as one of the contenders in Region 8, probably the toughest league in Class 5A from top to bottom. There isn’t a lightweight among the members of the region, something that can’t be said about any other league in the state.

Eastside has made the playoffs for six straight seasons and for 11 of the last 14 years. Coach Jay Cawthon, who became head coach last year when Troy Hoff moved on to Woodstock, has been there for 17 of those seasons and understand how it works.

This year the Eagles are off to a 3-1 start and host Flowery Branch on Thursday night in the region opener at Sharp Stadium in Covington.

So far Eastside has been winning with a tough defense, which has allowed the young offensive line a chance to gain experience. No opponent has scored more than two touchdowns, including county rival 7A Newton, which beat the Eagles 12-0 in the second week of the season.

“We’ve got a lot of experience back on defense,” Cawthon said. “And offensively we’re getting better. We’ve got some young guys up front, but we run the ball pretty good and our passing game is starting to come around. But it’s been a defensive-led team through this point up to last week when we really exploded offensively.”

The only returner on the offensive line is four-year starting center Marcus Metcalf, who played alongside a pair of Division I signees and learned from them. Today he’s the leader of the line and is helping first-year starters Carlton Belgrade and Tagen Brown, a pair of talent sophomore guards.

The quarterback is E’sean Arnold, who has thrown for 293 yards and two touchdowns and run for 137 yards and one touchdown. He also starts at strong safety, punts and holds for kicks.

“He literally never leaves the field,” Cawthon said.

There are several solid running backs with the leader being Kenai Grier, who has run for 428 yards and seven touchdowns. Grier ran for 681 and scored nine touchdowns as a junior when he played in the shadows of all-state running back Dallas Johnson (1,809 yards, 22 TDs in 2021). Grier has now taken the lead role. He had a 91-yard touchdown run against Luella and an 82-yarder against Ola.

In addition to Grier, the defense features linebackers Jean Claude Joseph III, a three-year starter and Coastal Carolina commit with 29 tackles, and D’von Duplessis, a two-year starter with 32 tackles and two sacks. The line features freshman nose guard Xavier Joseph and ends Jacorey Jackson and Ejay Weaver and the secondary has a breakthrough player in sophomore safety Jayden Barr.

The Eagles will have their hands full this week against Flowery Branch (2-2), which was ranked as high as No. 7 in the state this season. The Falcons have lost two in a row, to state-ranked Stephens and unbeaten Class 7A Lambert. The Branch has a solid running game behind Malik Dryden and Myles Ivey, but have allowed a combined 70 points in their two losses.

Here are five other top Class 5A games

Bainbridge at Ware County: Class 3A No. 9 Bainbridge (2-3) has already picked off Region 1 member Coffee and will go for an encore against No. 2 Bainbridge. Ware County has won the last eight meetings, including 42-15 in 2021.

Ware County (3-0) has last week off after slugging it out against Benedictine. Quarterback Niko Smith has thrown for 459 yards and four touchdowns and Dae’jeaun Dennis is the top rusher with 310 yards and two touchdowns.

Bainbridge quarterback Cam Sanders has thrown for 515 yards and five touchdowns and running back Keenan Phillips has rushed for 340 yards and four touchdowns. Antavious Murphy has 22 receptions for 292 yards and five touchdowns. On defense, Dontavious Broadnax has an interception and blocked two punts.

Jefferson at Clarke Central: This is another one of those important games in Region 8, the region opener for both teams. Three-time defending region champion Clarke Central (1-3) will try to stop a three-game losing streak against Jefferson (2-2) in Death Valley. This is the first meeting between the two schools.

Clarke’s trouble has been on defense. The Gladiators have allowed 117 points over the last three week and will have their hands full against a Jefferson team that averages 33 points.

The Dragons have a strong running game behind junior Sammy Brown, who has run for 544 yards and nine touchdowns and also plays linebacker. Quarterback Max Aldridge has thrown for 556 yards and run for another 106 on the ground.

Clarke’s offense operates behind two-year starter Lucian Anderson, who has thrown for 299 yards and run for 389 yards and eight touchdowns. Kendrick Curry leads the running back by committee.

Richmond Hill at Coffee: The No. 7 Trojans (3-1) have won two straight since its loss to Bainbridge. Coffee leads the series 3-0 but they haven’t played since 2018. First-year coach Mike Coe leans on running back Antwain McDuffie, who has rushed for 446 yards and eight touchdowns in four games.

Richmond Hill (3-2) features quarterback Ty Goldrick (827 yards passing, six touchdowns) and running back Zion Gilliard (526 yards, seven touchdowns). The Wildcats are coming off a gritty overtime win against New Hampstead and their loss came against No. 2 Ware County.

Warner Robins at Houston County: No. 8 Warner Robins (1-3) has another tough game in Houston County (4-0), where quarterback Antwann Hill has thrown for 13 touchdowns and running back Ryan Talib has run for 137.5 yards per game. The Warner Robins defense continues to play at a high level and be tested this week by a Houston County offense that averages 56 points and has not scored fewer than 41.

The Demons have had offensive troubles; they managed only seven points last week in a loss to Dutchtown. Sophomore quarterback Chase Reese is trying to get his footing against some of the best teams in the state and running back Malcolm Brown is coming back from knee surgery.

Tucker vs. Stephenson (Adams Stadium): Hard to believe, but two of DeKalb County’s perennial contenders have played only seven times. Tucker (2-2) is coming off a 51-20 loss to McEachern and Stephenson (1-2) was beaten by Carver-Atlanta 32-27 in its last game.

The Tigers, under first-year coach Lonnie Jones, got 223 yards rushing from Jordan McCoy against McEachern. The junior has rushed for 729 yards and three touchdowns. Stephenson leads the series 4-3 and has won the last three games, including 20-14 in 2021.