Eastern Alamance’s football team heads into the upcoming season optimistic that the offense can once again be highly productive. Last fall the Eagles racked up over 5,300 yards of offense over 14 games - an average of more than 380 yards of total offense per outing.
With quarterback Austin Bryant back for his senior year, the Eagles are hopeful to continue building on last season’s excellent passing attack.
“Austin, in my opinion, is one of the top quarterbacks in the state of North Carolina,” Eastern Alamance head coach John Kirby said in a recent interview. “Austin throws the ball extremely well. Austin is a leader. He’s a coach on the field. Sometimes he gets on them a little harder than the paid coach goes. But our kids respond to it.”
Bryant was one of the catalysts for the EAHS offense last season, completing 231 of 376 pass attempts for 3,351 passing yards and 41 touchdowns with only six interceptions.
“He threw for over 2,000 yards last year. He threw for a high number with very few interceptions,” Kirby said. “I know you credit a lot of that to your receivers, who make plays. But Austin likes to throw it. He runs it well enough to keep you honest. He just does a good job of running our offense, and keeping everybody kind of intact, where we’re supposed to be.”
Although Bryant also stars in lacrosse for Eastern Alamance, he is hopeful to parlay another excellent season under center this fall as the Eagles’ starting quarterback into an opportunity to play football collegiately.
“Austin, I think football is in his genes to try to go to the next level to play. He’s attended a lot of camps this summer,” Coach Kirby explained. “I don’t think there’s any question about his ability. I don’t think there’s any question about his mind for the game. I think that probably the question mark in some of their eyes right now is his size. And I think that’s hurting him right now as far as getting an offer somewhere to play.”
Bryant will be working this summer and during the fall with a revamped receiving corps, as the Eagles have lost their top three pass catchers from 2018 in Josh Robinson (941 receiving yards, 17 touchdowns), Jaden Daye (727 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns), and Zach Dixon (633 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns).
“(Former Eastern starting quarterback) Hayden (Mann) looked to run, and Austin looks to throw,” Kirby said. “Neither one of them are wrong. That’s just kind of the way it was. Last year, Austin - the combo with him and Josh (Robinson) - it got better as the year went on. I think Josh became his primary target. Sometimes he (Robinson) would make some remarkable catches. Sometimes he would miss one right in the bread basket. But that’s high school football. That’s big shoes to fill with him.”
EAHS is looking to senior A.J. Camuto, who had 16 receptions for 188 yards and two touchdowns last season, along with Lanier Rice, who had 22 catches for 308 yards and five scores a season ago, to help fill the void left behind by the likes of Robinson, Daye, and Dixon.
Another potential option in the receiving game for Eastern is Colby May. May was also projected to be Eastern’s No. 1 guy in the offensive backfield. But a midsummer injury has curtailed those plans, at least temporarily.
“Colby May was going to be that guy at the running back spot. But we were in Danville, Virginia (earlier this summer), and he broke his collarbone. (We were playing in a) 7-on-7 game. He catches a pass, goes to the ground, lands on his shoulder. Kind of a freak thing,” Kirby said. “He’s out for at least 12 weeks. It looks like he could be back somewhere around the first of October. It’s unfortunate - senior year. Colby is another one of those guys who has sparked a lot of interest from the college guys.”
The injury is disappointing across the board for the Eagles. Not only does EAHS lose for at least half the regular season a punishing back who accumulated 1,284 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns in 2018, as well as 23 catches for 382 receiving yards. In addition, May loses the opportunity in the early part of the regular season to solidify his place as a bona fide major college recruit.
“I think he (May) knows, and everybody else knows, the first games are the important ones,” Kirby said of the college recruiters. “They kind of base decisions on game films from there (the early-season games). Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen for him. We’re disappointed in that, but we still expect him to be a leader. And before the year is over with, we hope that he will be that workhorse - that spark.”
With May out of the mix in August and September, the Eagles will look to senior Elijah Burnette, who had 34 carries for 184 rushing yards in 2018 in a backup role. Burnette had established himself in the EAHS secondary, but now will have to return to the offensive side of the ball.
“Elijah Burnette is a guy that has been in the trenches as well,” Kirby said. “Elijah last year moved up from the JV squad as our JV running back. We just felt like he was such a good athlete, we had to get him on the field. He played some running back last year. But his primary role last year was in the secondary. As of now, his primary role is going to be in the backfield. Elijah was playing a little defense, but now we’ll pretty much have to make him a primary offensive guy. ”
Along with Burnette, the Eagles will have some other options in the offensive backfield to replace May until he can get back on the field in October.
“Quentin Idley, JV running back from a year ago, he had a great camp (earlier in July),” Kirby said. “We think good things are going to happen for him, too. He’s a lot bigger, stronger. Seems to be quicker. I feel like those two guys are going to handle it well.”
Along the offensive line, Coach Kirby is excited to be bringing back four starters. He is hopeful that this unit will provide ample protection for Bryant, while also giving the Eagles some continuity and reliability amidst the uncertainty in the backfield.
“Up front on the offensive line, Kendell Ruffin is back for his third year,” Kirby said. “We’ve got some experience up front. Four of those guys are returning starters from last year. Ruffin and Josh Hester, Luke Madden and John Hudson. That’s four of the five that are back. Hopefully that will be a strength as well.”
One of the things that the Eagles have been working through this summer is the departure of longtime offensive coordinator Tony Aguilar, who left EAHS in the late spring to become the new head coach at nearby Eastern Guilford High School.
But according to Kirby, all the returning experience offensively has made the transition smooth.
“(Coach) Ag has been a mainstay here for the last 20 years. He’s just full of life, full of excitement,” Kirby said. “He has a passion for what he does. He’s kind of laid the foundation. Will Walker is going to assume the responsibilities of being our offensive coordinator. He learned from Coach Ag. He played under Coach Ag.”
“We’re going to miss him,” Kirby added of Aguilar. “We’ll miss the competition that he brought to it. But you know, he’s in a good place (at Eastern Guilford). He’s got a great opportunity to make a name for himself. Not that he hasn’t already, but he’s doing something that he’s always wanted to do. I think he’s always wanted to head up a program, and he’ll do an outstanding job there. He’s missed. Not just from the X’s and O’s, but just the camaraderie of the coaches as well.”
Despite the departure of Aguilar, and the temporary loss of May to start the season, Kirby is hopeful that the Eagles can have another excellent season offensively. But it will depend largely on keeping Bryant and other key offensive contributors healthy.
“We feel like we’ve got a lot of kids returning from a year ago. If nobody gets hurt and we don’t beat ourselves, we’ve got an opportunity to be okay,” he said. "By having kids that have been there before, it makes it easier. And it’s made it easier with the transition with Coach Ag being gone. They kind of know the procedure. They know what we’re doing. They know how to do it. We had a lot of kids that are back, and I think our program kind of goes around older kids being role models for the younger kids. If we can stay healthy and play every game and get better each and every week, I think we can make a run."