2021 was the Dallas Johnson show for the Eastside offense.
The senior running back accounted for 47 percent of the touches on offense for the Eagles and rushed for 1,809 yards and 22 touchdowns.
On a team that rushed the ball 80 percent of the time, rising senior running back Kenai Grier appears to be in the driver’s seat to replace Johnson’s production the best that he can. Grier rushed for 681 yards and scored nine touchdowns last season.
“He’s had a heck of an offseason and a heck of a summer,” Eastside head coach Jay Cawthon said of Grier. “He’s really taken on that role of being the leader of that running back group.”
But Grier won’t be the only running back getting touches in 2022. Cawthon said sophomore Jayden Barr, and D.J. Henderson, a rising senior who transferred over from Newton High will get their fair share of touches this season.
“Dallas has probably been our first true No. 1 back since Git Akin,” Cawton said. “We’re really a running back by committee team. Kenai is back and obviously, he’s going to get a lot of touches. But we feel good about our two or three other ones.”
If the Eagles are going to find success on the ground in 2022, they’re going to have to get their offensive line squared away in a hurry. The Eagles graduated four of their starting offensive linemen from a season ago, including Florida signee Jalen Farmer.
Cawthon said that as of right now, center Marcus Metcalf is the only lineman that has solidified a starting job heading into the season. Six other linemen are currently in a battle to earn the other four positions.
“That’s the big question mark for us,” Cawthon said. “Obviously we’re going to have four guys up there that have never played up under the lights. I think we’ll obviously get better as the year goes along. And like we always tell our kids, we don’t care how old you are. I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good by the end of the year and that’s when it matters.”
Heading into 2022, Cawthon said he hopes to be able to throw the ball at a higher clip than the Eagles did last year. E’Sean Arnold won the starting job early last season and went on to have a solid season. He completed 61 percent of his passes, threw five touchdowns and was only intercepted twice.
With a year under his belt, Cawthon has seen Arnold’s confidence grow this offseason.
“E’Sean has taken that leadership role to another level,” Cawthon said. “The biggest thing that I’ve seen is just his confidence level in everything that he does. I think the game has slowed down for him and that’s what you like to see in a quarterback. I think we’ll hopefully be able to throw the ball a little more down the field. That just comes with him being comfortable with the offense.”
Eastside’s defense has a chance to be very good in 2022 and that starts at the linebacker position.
The Eagles return Coastal Carolina commit Jean Claude Joseph, as well as D’Von Duplessis, who will help anchor the defense. The Eagles’ secondary is also shaping up very well with Barr and Arnold at safety and Aeron Gresham and Jordan Edwards at corner.
“I feel like we have a chance to be pretty good,” Cawthon said of the defense. “We have a lot of guys over there that have been in the fire. We preach playing fast and they’re doing that. I’m looking for our defense to carry us a little bit early in the year until we get our offense going.”
Region 8-AAAA will have a completely different look in 2022.
The GHSA elected to gut the region and overhaul it almost completely. Only Eastside, Clarke Central and Loganville remain from the previous Region 8 that was constructed before the start of the 2020 season.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, the region has only gotten tougher with the addition of Jefferson, Heritage-Conyers, Flowery Branch and Winder-Barrow.
The Eagles had a great 2021 season under Cawthon, who took over the reins after the departure of Troy Hoff. Cawthon, a longtime coordinator for the Eagles, said he feels more comfortable as the man in charge heading into Year 2 and is looking forward to the upped competition level in 2022.
“Going into my 17th or 18th year at Eastside, this is by far the toughest schedule that we’ve had,” Cawthon said. “In this region from top to bottom, there are no cupcakes. We have to be ready every week. I think 1 through 10, this is the toughest schedule we’ve had since I’ve been at Eastside.”
The Eagles have also moved into a new facility this offseason. While they will continue to play their home games at Sharp Stadium, they have been practicing and conditioning at their new high school that opens this fall.