Newton set to face Westlake in final non-region game

Buford’s Drew Gutierrez (11) makes a vertical tackle to stop Newton’s Jerrol Hines (3) from picking up a first down during last year’s game.

If Newton was in need of any extra motivation heading into their first true challenge of 2019, the team got just that Monday afternoon.

Rams head coach Camiel Grant and company were made aware that their trip to No. 2 ranked Buford Friday night for the second year in a row would mark the Wolves’ homecoming game.

With most high school teams looking to schedule an easy victory on homecoming night — a game that is expected to be a sell-out — it wasn’t hard for Grant to make that another reason why a victory over the Wolves would taste that much sweeter.

“Their athletic director sent us an email detailing the layout and directions of how to get there and mentioned that it was their homecoming,” Grant said. “I understand what you are trying to do on homecoming. So yeah, being able to go in there and win at their place would be big in and of itself. But it would be nice to kind of put a damper on the festivities, so to speak, by getting a win on homecoming.”

The challenge that awaits the Rams against Buford, however, will be no easy task. While their 54-27 loss last season to the Wolves seems like a distant memory, Grant, who will coach against Buford for the first time, knows full well what to expect.

“We’re very excited,” Grant said. “No slight on anyone else that we’ve played, but this will be the most complete team and the most balanced and talented that we’ve played so far. I feel like from a competitive standpoint and being a competitor, these are the games that you get very excited about because you get an opportunity to go out and face a real tough challenge and find out who you are and what you’re made of.”

With most of the Rams’ roster having never experienced at atmosphere like that of Buford’s, Grant doesn’t expect that to be an issue the second time around.

“They hadn’t seen that type of atmosphere,” Grant said. “That was, for a lot of them, their first time being in a place like that with that type of crowd and that type of support. This year, they know what to expect. I also feel like our kids, right now, are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. I think they feel like they need to prove that they should be looked at as some of the best talent in the state as well. It excites them to go into a place like Buford.”

From a player personnel standpoint, Friday night’s matchup will feature several new faces from that of last year’s contest.

Current Rams starting quarterback Neal Howard did not play against the Wolves in 2018. Instead, the left-hander watched as LT Stowers threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Adarius Thomas, who rushed for 89 yards on 11 carries, has also since graduated.

On the Wolves’ sideline, the hosts will turn to 2018 backup quarterback Jarvis Evans after the sudden transfer of Auburn commit Aaron McGlaughlin. Evans is no stranger to the Rams, though, after receiving playing time late in last year’s game.

Evans is also the son of Grant’s second cousin, a fun twist to Friday night’s matchup that he was only recently made aware of.

At running back, the Wolves will be without 2018 Texas signee Derrian Brown, who rushed for 1,908 yards and scored 30 touchdowns. Instead, the Wolves will turn to senior Elijah Turner, who still managed to rush for 489 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior.

While the talent level from the Wolves’ QB and RB positions might not be as strong in 2019, their offensive line, one that features Alabama commit, Seth McLaughlin, will be a handful for the Rams on Friday.

“With (Buford), like it has been for several years, it starts up front with their offensive line,” Grant said. “All five of those guys, plus a couple of tight ends that they play, are very good together as a unit and do a very good job in the run game, as they have historically.”

Through three games, the Rams find themselves 3-0 without having faced much competition in Alcovy, Eastside and Arabia Mountain. Having out-scored their three opponents 107-13, Grant expects much stiffer competition come Friday.

Buford and Westlake stand as the Rams final two non-region games of 2019, two teams that are a combined 5-1.

“I expect these next two ball games to be much more of a challenge for them and I think it’s important for them to learn how to play through some adversity,” Grant said. “It’s not unheard of to find yourself down in the ball game at some point. While I would always love to play form head for four quarters, I’m not afraid and not opposed to having to be down by a score or someone else scoring first and getting the opportunity to respond to a challenge like that.”

A victory Friday night would give the Rams their first victory over a Top 5 ranked opponent in five years, but what the score shows on the scoreboard at the final buzzer won’t be the only thing Grant will focus his concern on.

“Regardless of what the numbers on the scoreboard say, we are going to critic and coach effort, not ability,” Grant said. “We really believe that if we play at our standard of effort, that we’re going to have a chance to win every ball game. If we leave a game and the scoreboard is not in our favor but we have played as hard as we can play, then we’ll let the chips fall well they may. We’re extremely confident that when we do that, we’re going to be hard to beat.”

Sports Editor

A 2017 graduate of the University of North Georgia, Colin joined the Rockdale/Newton Citizen in March of 2018 as the papers' full-time sports editor. A 2013 graduate of Jackson County High School, Colin received a golf scholarship to Andrew College.