BY DEAN HOCKNEY
GREENTOWN, Ind. – Last year, Eastern Comet football fans had high hopes of a solid season with a returning quarterback and breakout runner. But in game two, 1,100-yard rusher Papee Byers was injured and the Comets never seemed to get on track. Fast forward one year and Byers is healthy for his junior campaign and signal-caller Austin Bates is ready for his senior season.
“We had a great summer with no injuries,” said head coach Josh Edwards, who led the team to a 7-3 record in 2011. “That is exciting and we are ready to go.”
One drawback to the Comets in 2014 is the ever-present decline of the number of players – 42 players dot the roster, but 17 of those are freshmen and another seven are sophomore. That leaves only 12 seniors on the roster – with one being Bates.
“The simplicity of our system works,” said Edwards. “New kids can come in and learn.”
Bates, a 6-4 quarterback, completed 142 of 270 passing attempts last year, good for 1,992 yards and 17 touchdowns. With Byers down, Bates also led the team in rushing to the tune of 537 yards and eight scores. Senior Cree Johnston had 41 catches for 565 yards last year, and at 6-0, will be a big returning target for Bates. He will also have a pair of 6-2 receivers in Scott Mullenix and Taylor Tattersal.
“This will be Austin’s third year starting,” said Edwards. “Since game five of his sophomore year he has shown continual improvement. As we know, consistency at the quarterback position is the key to an offense.”
According to Edwards, Byers’ return to the lineup, both on offense and defense, will be a major key component.
“It is huge; he is our spark,” said the coach. “He always has a smile on his face but he is as intense of a player as there is. He obviously can change a football game on offense, but what most people don’t realize is he is better on defense. He is the guy on defense that has a nose for the ball. He will change our defense; we just have to keep him healthy.”
Edwards said with the return of an experienced defense, he expects vast improvements over a year ago.
“We lost Braden Gibson and Will Porter on defense, but we are really excited about what is returning this year,” said Edwards. “We should see some huge improvements, most of that due to the maturity. We played quite a few sophomores last year, and they are bigger and stronger this year.”
Evan Ellis, Brett Bachman, Gaven Cox and Austin Rogers are slated to make up the defensive line with Grant Hendryx and Jared Huggins vying for time. Mullenix and Andrew Turner will line up at outside linebacker spots, while Byers and Tattersall will man the middle. Mullenix and freshman Otis Smith will also see time at the middle linebacker position while Bates and Ross Smith will play corners.
Edwards admits the final year of the Mid-Indiana Conference will be tough.
“I admit, it is bittersweet,” he said. “It is the conference I played in and a lot of people in Greentown played in it. This will be a cool year – hopefully some special memories will be built because of it.”
The Comets may be among the youngest teams in Howard County, but with the youth comes optimism for the future. The future looks bright for Eastern, especially with the return of two key position players.