ATHENS — The disappointment Newton felt as they jogged off the UGA’s indoor football facility Thursday was short-lived.
One of 30 teams competing in Kirby Smart’s UGA 7-on-7 passing tournament, the Rams ripped off five consecutive wins before falling by one point to Eagles Landing in the quarterfinals.
With hopes of making a deeper run, first-year head coach Camiel Grant quickly gathered his team into a huddle and delivered a message that spoke to his team’s willingness to battle and compete in all seven games that they played in.
From starting the day in a defensive battle with The Heritage School, an eventual 11-10 loss, to a come-from-behind victory over East Jackson, a game they trailed 14-0 early before winning 18-17 to reach the quarterfinals, Grant said he witnessed a lot more ups than downs on the day.
“There’s not a question about that,” a chipper Grant said. “I was glad that we had a chance to play a ball game where we were down significantly and able to fight through it. We had a lot of, what other people may consider, other guys that came to play today. I’m excited about that.”
Just as quickly as Grant watched his team manifest a comeback against East Jackson, he watched his team lose and early lead of their own against Eagles Landing. The Rams held an 11-0 lead before losing on a late interception, 15-14.
“Even though we lost this last one, I think it was a good experience for them,” Grant said. “There’s a such thing of learning how to play when you’re in front, as well. That’s the thing that we’re trying to get them to understand. Don’t watch the scoreboard. It doesn’t really tell you what’s going on. You have to go and finish it on the field.”
One of the many bright spots for the Rams Thursday was the play of rising sophomore quarterback Jevarra Martin, who traded starts with rising senior, Neal Howard. Martin did not lose a game while quarterbacking the Rams. In his first two starts against Locust Grove and Jones County, the left-hander threw five touchdowns without tossing an interception.
“He’s impressed me all winter,” Grant said of Martin. “He is lightyears away from where he ended last season. His arm strength has improved, his confidence has improved. I think a lot of that has to do with him being a varsity pitcher as a ninth grader. Pitching and playing quarterback are very similar. You have the ball in your hands at all times. We’re very pleased with his progression.”
Neal, who has spent the past two years trading starts for the Rams at quarterback, shook off a rough start in Game 1 against The Heritage School before helping Newton to wins against Crisp County and Lithia Springs.
Grant said the starting quarterback job at Newton is just as open as any other position on the field.
“There’s a battle for every position,” Grant said. “We want competition every single day. We’re blessed to be in a position where at every position, we have kids that are good enough to go and compete for those spots.”
I don’t look at the quarterback position different than any other.I have a tremendous amount of confidence in both of those guys and I like the way that they help each other. But I like the way that they still compete. They know that it’s a competition.”
The Rams’ skill positions were on full display Thursday with the likes of four-star cornerback Nyland Green taking reps in the secondary, as well as at wide receiver.
Three-star wide receiver Robert Lewis was featured in a similar role.
Green’s biggest highlight of the day came in the Rams’ final pool play game against Jones County. The lengthy 6-foot-3 rising junior forced a turnover on downs in the closing seconds as his Rams were able to hold on for a narrow 19-17 win.
Lewis was responsible for a touchdown on the day, as well as two interceptions. Josh Hardeman highlighted the defensive secondary for the Rams, too, with a pair of interceptions against East Jackson.
Fellow receivers Diondre Glover and Jerrol Hines each caught multiple touchdowns while Eastside transfer Quincy Cullins, a rising junior, highlighted the rams out of the backfield.
Having his star athletes line up on both sides of the ball Thursday is likely a taste of what is to come for the upcoming season, Grant said.
“We don’t want to lose a ball game and look on the sidelines and there are kids that are above that line and they haven’t had a chance to contribute,” Grant said. “Whether that’s offense, defense or special teams. So we’re just trying to find a way to get the best kids on the field all the time.”
With summer practice in full swing for the Rams, Grant said he has seen vast improvement since the first day of spring practice last month.
““I think they’re starting to believe in each other a little bit more,” Grant said. “They’re fighting hard for each other and I think they like playing with each other. So that has progressed. In terms of performance, the learning curve is not as steep now. A lot of the new guys that came in this spring that are starting to pick up what we’re doing. We’ve got a majority of the staff in place and are getting coached up well. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we are making progress.”