By Gabriel Stovall
STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. — So you’ve got one of the best running backs in all of Georgia with a blue chip receiver flanking him wide.
Your quarterback may be as good with his arm as he is with his feet. Where, then, is the obvious place to hang your hat for team success?
On defense, of course.
After all, we’re talking about coach Kevin Whitley and the Stockbridge Tigers, here — a team that’s won no less than nine games since 2011, and a program that’s carved out a reputation for consistently fielding some of the stingiest defenses and rugged rushing attacks in Georgia.
Oh by the way, the aforementioned scenario is not hypothetical by any means. If you’ve never heard of Jalen Holston and Marquez Ezzard, do a google search on the duo and you’ll find that they have a combined 44 Division I scholarship offers between them, thanks to their offensive exploits.
But Whitley, never one to feed the hype machine on his own talent, says none of these facts matter when it comes to the identity of the 2016 version of Stockbridge football.
“They’re definitely good players on both sides of the ball,” Whitley said. “But right now, we’re gonna make a living on defense.”
And in a 10 minute conversation about his two star offensive athletes, that was all he had to say about them specifically. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize their giftedness.
“We’re labeled a wing-t offense, but really we’re triple option,” Whitley said. “We like to run the ball, yes, but the key to any offense is to get the playmakers that you have the ball. I don’t care if you want to ruin 100 times, if you’ve got a player like Marquez out there, it doesn’t make sense to let him stand out there and not touch the ball. Same with passing. If you want to throw it all over the field, but you’ve got a guy who can run for 2,000 yards in a season, there’s no need to throw it. You give him the ball.”
Such personnel based schematics is the reason why the top-ranked Tigers have come roaring out of the gates with a 2-0 start by way of a 35-34 win over Mays in the Inner City Classic, followed by a 24-21 squeaker over Lovejoy.
Despite scoring 59 points in its first two games, Whitley seems to be spot on about Stockbridge assessment.
In the Mays game, the Tigers escaped a shootout with key defensive stops — one was a pick six by defensive back Mike Price, and the other, a Ryan Massey interception late in the fourth quarter that sealed the deal.
Then last Saturday, on a night when a scrappy young Lovejoy squad would not let Stockbridge pull away, the Tigers’ defense bowed up in key moments, despite giving up 344 total yards in order to preserve the win.
But don’t think that Ezzard and Holston have any hard feelings toward their coaches for not completely scrapping the team’s identity to accommodate them. In fact, since both players play both sides of the ball, the defensive focus bodes well for them also.
“It feels great to know that we’re about defense,” Ezzard said. “It’s exciting to play on both sides of the ball. I mean, we’re football players and if you’re truly a football player you always want to be able to play.”
For Ezzard to be considered a top receiver is impressive, given the fact that Stockbridge has only thrown the ball 19 times so far this season. Meanwhile Holston has rushed for 343 yards and two scores in his first two outings — a pace that will put him at over 1,700 yards through a 10-game regular season.
But if, for the sake of winning ball games and getting to the Georgia Dome in December, the duo sees their roles shift or change, it won’t bother them one bit.
“All we do is we just keep on listening to what our coaches tell us,” Holston said. “We take it to heard. Every day after spring practice we’ve just been focusing on getting better, working on our craft and doing whatever it takes for us to win.”
Winning is all Ezzard cares about.
“We’ve been a good team every year,” he said. “But coach Whit keeps telling us that there’s a difference between being a good team and a great team. We’re trying to be that great team this year.”