ROAD TO KICKOFF: Injury bug has slowed North Clayton’s OL

Photo by Derrick Mahone
North Clayton coach Max Wiltz goes over some defensive alignments with senior defensive end Devin Lewis, who will also play some at tight end for the Eagles this season.

Photo by Derrick Mahone North Clayton coach Max Wiltz goes over some defensive alignments with senior defensive end Devin Lewis, who will also play some at tight end for the Eagles this season.

North Clayton at a glance

Last season: 7-4

Summer progress: In the early preseason, injuries have crippled the Eagles at offensive line, which was considered the strength of the offense. Three of the injured players are expected back by the time the season starts in late August.

Work to do: With the opening game four weeks away, the Eagles have yet to name a starter at quarterback. Coach Max Wiltz said three candidates have all shown good qualities to lead the offense. Since hiring two offensive coaches, Wiltz can spend more time working on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, he had to serve as offensive, defensive and special teams coach due to a small staff.

Emerging players: Incoming freshman Dwayne Tiller is expected to start at fullback. The former North Clayton Middle School player will also play on the majority of the special teams. Mike Smith, who played on the school’s basketball team, has emerged as a candidate at wide receiver.

The humidity at Friday’s afternoon practice didn’t seem to bother North Clayton coach Max Wiltz as much as the missing players.

Most noticeable were three offensive linemen.

What is considered the strength of a team that returns 16 starters has now become somewhat of a sore spot in the early stages of preseason practice. The Eagles have three of linemen out nursing various injuries.

Wiltz, who is entering his second season at the helm, said two will be back for its scrimmage in a few weeks against Drew, while another is expected back by the season-opener against Riverdale.

“If they are all here, you could say that (offensive line) is the strength of our offense,” Wiltz said. “It has slowed us down on offense with the installation of some new things. It is bothersome, because we have had to go back to some of the basics.”

On the bright side, Wiltz said some of the younger players have been able to receive some reps.

“If anything, hopefully we get the injuries out the way early, and this doesn’t happen during the season,” Wiltz said.

The Eagles had anticipated the return of all five linemen this season. Last season, the offensive line was sort of a sore spot at times during the season.

Since North Clayton is breaking in a new quarterback this fall after three-year starter Dennis Johnson graduated, Wiltz said it is important for the offensive line to jell until a new starter gets comfortable with the offense.

The coach hasn’t named a starter among the three candidates of senior Jeremy Daniels, junior Quenterious Page and sophomore Isaac Thomas.

Daniels started some at safety last season. Wiltz said that Thomas has the “best potential” of the three candidates while Page is athletic enough to play both wide receiver and wingback.

“If I could mold all their good qualities into one, it would be special,” Wiltz said. “It is a tough choice. We definitely have three good players to chose from.”

Regardless of who is behind center, the Eagles plan on feeding their opponents a steady diet of running back La’Darrius Mathis, who is a three-year starter. Mathis has drawn interest from Tennessee-Chattanooga and Appalachian State among other schools.

“We are looking for him to have a good year,” Wiltz said.

“I’ve got to step it up and be a leader this season,” Mathis said. “Coach has put all the pressure on me to carry this team. I’m looking forward to proving a lot of people wrong about me and the team.”

Mathis and Wiltz said they are a little disturbed that no college has offered the athletic running back. Mathis said he has taken it as a challenge to work towards an offer this season.

“I have to go out there and show everyone what I can do,” Mathis said. “I’m looking forward to that challenge.”

As Wiltz turns the offense over to assistant coaches Raymond Ware and Chauncy Prather this season, he will concentrate on the defensive side of the ball. Before being named head coach three years ago, he served as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator.

The Eagles return seven starters on the defense including last season’s leading tackler Aaron Adwater, a senior linebacker. Wiltz has moved senior defensive end Will Kimey to a linebacker spot.

“We have seven seniors back on defense so we are expecting a lot of this group,” Wiltz said.

However, he said they will miss Johnson, who also played some at safety last season.

The Eagles welcome senior defensive end Martivious Harris back after missing last season for academic reasons.

“He is looking real good in the preseason,” Wiltz said. “I don’t think he will be rusty from that year off. If anything, it has made him hungry.”