Eagles build on south state runBy JOSHUA CAMPBELL,
The East Marion Eagles are coming off the deepest postseason run of all of the Marion County teams by reaching the south state championship but are having to replace some key pieces and are stepping up in weight class.
The Eagles started last season just 2-4 before reeling off six wins in seven games that culminated in back-to-back convincing upsets of Noxapater and Lumberton in the 1A playoffs. Head coach Kevin Jackson said what clicked after losing to Lumberton 34-8 on the road in late September was the players believing in themselves that they can win.
“I think the seniors stepping and deciding to lead the team is when it clicked. Flenard McLin and Wanya Cook kind of took the team by the hand and took them along with them,” he said. “Senior leadership I think is the reason that it clicked.”
Latral Waller said players took practice more seriously as the season progressed, and they understand now what it takes during the week to have success on Friday night.
Cook and McLin are gone now, though, as the Eagles have to replace six starters while making the leap from Class 1A back up to 2A. The Eagles spent more than two decades as one of the best teams in 2A before dropping to 1A for the 2017 and 2018 seasons and now join Collins, North Forrest, Perry Central and St. Patrick in Region 8-2A.
The biggest difference for Jackson in stepping back up to Class 2A is the uptick in physicality on a week-to-week basis. He said that while a team like Lumberton is one of the toughest teams in the South regardless of classification, there are more teams in 2A that are physical
“Football is football; it doesn’t change. Besides the pros you have different levels of college teams and different levels of high school teams. There’s a saying that every man puts his pants on the same way. You have to do it between the lines no matter what level you are,” he explained. “Depth may be a factor. There may be some teams in our district that have more depth than what we do.”
Jackson said he believes execution is always the main key to being successful and that the Eagles will need some younger players to grow up quickly to complement their experience in 2019.
“We have some guys that should be able to go out and execute that have a lot of playing experience. It will just be a matter of being a little more mentally tough going up another level,” he said.
Jackson said having Devin Daniels, who accounted for 31 offensive touchdowns last year, back for a fourth year under center is a big-time blessing.
“He’s going to be pretty much like a coach out there on the field. He knows the ins and outs of offense, and he understands better of how to scan the field while he does some of his scrambling. I’m excited to see him in action this year,” he said. “Devin has been a great player, and I’m expecting even bigger things from him this year.”
Without Cook, who led the team with 936 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, the Eagles will rely on a three-man backfield committee with the potential of a fourth being added to the mix. Ja’Quarious Jones and Latral Waller return as a pair of big, physical backs, while Deundre Ruffin has had a good offseason to put himself in the mix as a change-of-pace back. Jackson said Lawrence Lambert could also see some time at running back and that the Eagles will start with a committee approach to begin the year and let it play itself out. Having a quarterback in Daniels who ran for 650 yards and 13 touchdowns last year will also factor into the running game.
“It’s going to be tough because Wanya was a good back,” Waller said. “Now it’s all on us. I have to step up.”
East Marion lost three starting receivers from last year’s squad, and Jackson said he’ll be counting on some young guys to step up and fill the void. The most intriguing of the bunch is 5-foot-9 freshman speedster Deonta Newton, who was a track star for the Eagles as an eighth grader last year. Carlos Stubbs and Lawrence Lambert both have experience coming back and will be the main options in the passing game.
On the offensive line the Eagles return both starting tackles, Jaheim Burkett and Ethan Hibley, and their starting center, Jaylin Mooring. Jackson said the two guard spots are completely up for grabs with nobody emerging as a leader in the early portion of practice but that he still feels confident about the unit.
“With those three guys coming back, offensive line play and quarterback are probably are two strongest suits right now,” he said.
Freshman Joshua Paige will join mainstays Elijah Brown, Hibley and Burkett on the defensive line, while Martez Mikell, Ladarrius Watts, Jones and Waller are back at linebacker.
“Our front seven should be pretty good,” Jackson said. “Brown is coming off a good season as one of those ends last year. Ethan subbed with a guy on the defensive line last year quite a bit, so he has some experience. Jaheim Burkett and Josh will be some guys also. We should be OK up front, just a little inexperienced.”
The Eagles usually line up with five down linemen and two linebackers, but Jackson said during the playoffs he tries to get as many athletes on the field as possible and could switch to a 4-2-5. The front seven’s play was one of the biggest reasons East Marion improved so drastically late last season and could be a strength once again.
Jackson said only Daniels and Lambert return in the secondary, and freshman Jadarrius Mallard and Watts could factor in as the other two guys. Jackson said while Mallard and Watts have the early edge the spots are open for the taking, but he’s glad to have two returners with a lot of experience.
“Devin and Lawrence will anchor it back there and keep everybody else under control,” he said.
The Eagles may be making a leap in competition and are having to replace several key players, but they return their best player in Daniels and several good athletes. If they are able to find the same level of commitment they had late last season early on, the Eagles could make another deep run.
Pictured Above: East Marion's Latral Waller, Devin Daniels and Jaheim Burkett are primed to lead the Eagles on another deep playoff run. | Photo by Joshua Campbell