By Derrick Mahone
Last football season, North Clayton went the furthest of any of the Southern Crescent schools when it reached the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
If the Eagles are to reach or exceed that mark this season, several young players will have to fill some big roles left by graduation. The offensive line was hit hard by the graduation of four starters, including Div. I-A signee Torin Box, who signed with North Carolina State.
Replacing running back Clarance Jackson was also a top priority as the Eagles concluded spring practice last week. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jackson signed with Ole Miss in February. Last season, he led the state with 1,954 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to being named Region 4-AAAA Player of the Year by the league's coaches.
"We got some kids that did a good job," North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney said.
Sophomore running back LaDarius Mathis will be counted on to fill the void left by Jackson alone with a pair of freshmen. In last week's spring game, Mathis scored a two touchdowns.
"He is a little faster than Clarence," Hackney said. "We are going to try to build from that. We need to get some experience on the offensive line. It won't matter if Jackson was back or not, because we are so young on the offensive line."
Unlike a year ago, the Eagles quarterback situation is more secure now. Rising junior Dennis Johnson did a steady job of directing the Eagles' Wing-T offensive attack after being thrust into the job last season. Last spring projected starter Milton Artiss transferred, which forced Johnson into the starting role.
With an experience offensive line and Jackson in the backfield last season, the Eagles finished as region runner-up and reached the quarterfinals for the first time since the 1997 season.
"We have seen some growth in Dennis," Hackney said. "We are not as worried about the quarterback position as we were this time last year. It has been a big difference in having him in there with some experience."
Now, he must become a leader for a young offensive team.
On the defensive side, North Clayton returns five starters including highly recruited linebacker Amarlo Herrea, who has verbally committed to Georgia. A big chore is replacing the entire defensive backfield, which was hit by graduation.
Hackney said he was concerned that the defense gave up four touchdowns in the spring game.
"There is definitely room for improvement," Hackney said.
The Eagles will take two weeks off before beginning there summer workouts on June 7. Hackney said the team attitude has been positive since coming off a quarterfinals loss to Clarke Central last November.
"Our guys are pretty low-key," Hackney said. "They know what is expected of them. They look forward to the challenge, and they pride themselves on being the best team in the county. It is a long summer, but I think they are ready to get back to work."