Prep Football: East Coweta now stands in way of upstart HughesBy CHRIS GOLTERMANN
East Coweta’s football program has gone from a season on the brink following a 1-4 start to one on the verge of reaching the state playoffs again during a span of 14 days.
Langston Hughes knows the feeling. Except that the Panthers turnaround has been a 180-degree swing over the past 365 days and perhaps even longer.
If the Panthers didn’t have East Coweta’s attention prior to the 2012 season — when they were picked to finish fifth out of six schools among a preseason poll of coaches and media — they sure do have it prior to tonight’s third annual meeting between the two football programs in Fairburn.
Tonight’s winner between the region’s remaining two unbeaten teams following the first two weeks of the schedule will take the upperhand toward claiming this year’s championship. So far, not much has gotten in the way of the 6-1 Panthers, whose young nucleus of 18 returning starters from last year has grown up in a hurry.
“It’s a process and they’ve been patient,” said Indians head coach Clint Wade, whose 3-4 lineup has a chance to even its record with a third consecutive region win following a rough non-region schedule. “They do things very well. That coaching staff has done a heck of a job.”
Behind junior Kenny Moxie, a third-year starter at quarterback, and running back Keion Davis, converted from Hughes’ deep receiving corps, Hughes has posted back-to-back 34-point efforts against 3-AAAAAA foes Douglas County and Newnan. The Panthers have been able to move the ball consistently against opponents a year after finishing a program-best 3-7 in 2011. A versatile attack that can show either a two-back set or three to four wideouts on any given snap has scored at least three times in five of its seven games using effective zone blocking up front on the line.
“They’ve got so many weapons. The run the ball very, very effectively. And then they’ve got four wideouts that can go,” Wade said. “They have a real good foundation of plays to where they try and keep you off-balanced.”
Davis opened his year with a 60-yard touchdown run in the team’s scrimmage against McIntosh and hasn’t looked back. Last week against Newnan, the junior helped stave off a 14-point rally in the fourth quarter with a 65-yard score that finally broke the Cougars backs.
“That litmus test, they past through it last week,” Wade said. “They’re not an overly big team. They just seem stronger.”
It should present a bigger challenge to an East Coweta defense that also seems to have righted itself in back-to-back victories over Westlake (24-7) and Tri-Cities (44-15). Before the Bulldogs tacked on two meaningless scores in the fourth quarter last Friday, the Indians had outscored opponents 65-0 over a span of five quarters dating back to halftime against Westlake when East Coweta trailed 7-3 to the Lions.
“It don’t think it’s because anything I told them,” Wade joked. “I’m just real proud of our players the way that they’ve responded to our coaching. Our coaching staff has done a great job and we had a great week of practice last week. I think that was indicative of our performance last Friday night. They seem to be focused and understand when we come out of the gate hard and give great effort, good things can happen.”
Langston Hughes patience has paid further dividends on defense, where all 11 returning starters have trimmed last year’s scoring average of 26.3 points allowed to a paltry 8.4 including back-to-back shutouts prior to region play. A year after holding teams to under 18 points just once, the Panthers haven’t allowed more than 17 in any of its first 17 games.
A unit that had five freshmen starters at points of last season schedule that included a 35-14 loss at home to East Coweta has excelled behind sophomore 6-1, 200-pound linebacker Montavious Atkinson. Even without senior starter Andrekay Askew, out with an extended injury, Hughes held Newnan to 61 yards rushing at just over 2-yards a carry.
East Coweta’s offense has been in high gear since returning from halftime two weeks ago at Westlake. Junior quarterback Bryce Gemmel threw a pair of touchdowns in both of his last two starts, finding junior receiver Markel Boston at least once each week. Running backs Dee Godfrey and Weylin Orr are following holes made up front by the Indians offensive line, with Orr posting one of his best efforts of his career.
The junior led the way in a 44-15 rout of Tri-Cities on homecoming with 123 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
East Coweta’s defense has also created as much a spark. Tyler Brown picked up his third interception over a two-week span against the Bulldogs, one of three turnovers by Tri-Cities. Nigel Gay and Jemarcus Godfrey forced fumbles last Friday
“When you turn things on like that, it seems like it just snowballs,” Wade said. “It’s all about confidence. There’s an emotional part of it.”
Wade and his staff, however, are trying to keep the team grounded emotionally heading into tonight’s game at Fairburn. Last year’s meeting, also on the road, saw the Indians allow an early turnover before finally opening a scoreless game four minutes into the second quarter.
“That’s the tough thing about football,” Wade said. “The den we’re going into [tonight] is going to be very hostile. When it comes to region time, you’ve got to be ready to play.”