East Jackson doesn’t celebrate turnovers with turnover chains or any other trinket, as has become the custom in football over the past three to four years.
Players responsible for takeaways are treated to a Blizzard or steak afterward (depending on the position coach).
But the greater rewards have been the four defensive touchdowns the Eagles have generated off turnovers over the past two weeks as East Jackson has rolled to a 3-0 start under new coach Cameron Pettus.
“We’re playing a lot more physical this year,” senior defensive lineman Jarrett Pursley said. “We’re getting after it in practice, and it’s just bleeding into the games. Now, we’re just hitting and recovering fumbles.”
Junior R.J. White credits attention to detail and strict adherence to assignments for the defense’s success in takeaways.
“We work on doing our job every day in practice,” said White, who plays the Eagles’ “star” position on defense. “We don’t do anybody else’s job.”
East Jackson’s defense has been wreaking havoc in its past two outings, having generated seven turnovers and a safety. Two interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, while two fumble recoveries have been taken to the house for scores.
The Eagle defense, which is allowing just 7.3 points per game, has accounted for 30 points in those victories. To put that in perspective, East Jackson generated only 38 points as a team all of last year.
“I think our defensive staff has just done an outstanding job,” Pettus said. “They’ve done a great job, and our kids have responded so well.”
Pettus said the team “preaches and practices turnovers,” devoting time every day in practice to defenders getting their hands on the ball: scoop and score, interception and ball-stripping drills.
“If the ball is on the ground, the defense has to scoop the ball, if it’s on the ground, even after a blown whistle,” he said.
Players say the extra emphasis helps.
“It helps very much,” White said. “We work on it every day in practice, and then we learn from the game.”
Pettus has seen the correlation over the years in defensive scores and victories.
“It’s held true,” he said. “I think every game I’ve ever coached in anytime we’ve scored on defense, we’ve won.”
Part of that is the psychological jolt that comes with a sudden score — an immediate swing in energy — when the ball changes hands.
“It brings all of us up … when we all get hyped, it’s like we come together as one and keep grinding, and we just want to do it again,” Pursley said.
Even the linemen are getting in on the action. In last week’s game, Pursley scooped up a loose ball stripped by White and rumbled 10 yards to the end zone for his first career touchdown as the Eagles beat Banks County 38-0.
Pursley publicly thanked White via Twitter for him being able to live out “every lineman’s dream.”
White was happy to oblige.
“I was happy for him,” he said. “I’ve always wanted him to get a touchdown, and that feeling of it.”
Meanwhile, the Eagles are winning at a rate not seen in 10 years. The last 3-0 start came in 2009 when the team reeled off nine wins to start the season.
Since falling behind 15-0 early at Lumpkin County in the season opener, East Jackson has outscored its competition 93-14 ever since. The team’s three wins have exceeded the program’s win total over the previous two seasons.
“We’re just playing like we want to be out there again, and we’re playing like we know we’re going to win,” Pursley said. “We know we’re going to get this first down. We know we’re going to complete this pass. We know what’s going to happen. It’s not like if we’re going to do it.”
Pettus praised the team’s work habits and willingness to get better in getting off to a fast start.
“The buy in from our kids is just phenomenal and they’re responding so well,” Pettus said. “They’re doing all the little things right … All those little-bitty things that they’re doing throughout the day that people don’t see is what’s leading them to being very, very good on Friday nights.”
East Jackson’s opportunistic defense will have another challenge before it Friday when it travels to Madison County to take on the Class AAAA Red Raiders, who are 2-2 with two wins over Class AAAA schools.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us … every week we’re going to have a better opponent,” Pettus said. “And that holds true this week. This is going to be the best football team we’ve faced.”
Making matters more challenging is Madison County’s triple-option offense, a scheme not seen very frequently these days. The Eagles will be tasked with stopping Red Raider quarterback Colby Smith, who is the trigger man for Madison County’s scheme.
White pointed to the importance of quality preparation and disciplined play this week as the Eagles attempt to start 4-0.
“We’ve just got to work at practice, do our job, the fundamentals — don’t do anybody else’s job besides yours,” he said. “That’s it.”
And as far as a turnover chain or some other symbolic ornament that this ball-hawking defense can champion, Pursley said for Eagle fans to stay tuned.
“We’ve got one coming Friday,” he said.