The final image of the Gray Collegiate War Eagles from the 2021 season was as 2A State Champions. Much has changed since the War Eagles stepped off the field at Charles W. Johnson Stadium that December night.
Part of that change has been in personnel, both on the roster and coaching staff. Head coach Adam Holmes lost 15 seniors from last year’s team; 11 of them are now playing college football.
“Anytime you are coming off a state championship team and you lose a senior class like we did, you lose a bunch of talent. You also lose a lot of leadership,” Holmes said.
Holmes also had to replace offensive line coach Cory Helms who left to become the head coach at Cardinal Newman School.
All those departures left Holmes with an offseason of transformation.
He brought in former UofSC star Willie Offord as the strength coach and Mike Armstrong as the offensive line coach.
On the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, the transformation was different. For the past four years, Gray’s offense has been mostly defined by former running back KZ Adams. While there were other players who also made the offense go, Adams turned in star performances week in and week out. With him off to Georgia State, it was time for new offensive playmakers to emerge.
One such playmaker is quarterback Riley Staton, who has completed 82-of-126 passes for 1,409 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has four main targets to throw to in Devin Johnson, 24 catches for 453 yards and six touchdowns; Zai Offord, 27 catches for 436 yards and two touchdowns; Jamarious Lockett, 11 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns; and Savion Smith, 15 receptions for 213 yards and three touchdowns.
“Anytime you go into a season, you look at what your strengths are,” Holmes said. “When you have a quarterback like Riley who can throw the ball downfield and has a strong arm and then you also have four good receivers you have to take full advantage of it.”
While the passing attack has emerged, the War Eagles’ rushing attack hasn’t gone dormant. Instead of one primary rusher, Holmes has turned to a trio of running backs to carry the load. Caleb Ford, 5’-10” and 215 lbs., is the leading rusher with 425 yards and six touchdowns on 60 carries. BJ Montgomery, the faster of the two, has 376 yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries.
Johnson has also spent some time in the backfield. He has rushed for 111 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries, including a performance against Mid-Carolina where he rushed for 110 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries.
The defensive side of the ball was where some concern was at the beginning of the season. Defensive coordinator Howie Bayer knew he had to replace six starters coming into the 2022 season, but that didn’t impact his expectations.
“We had to get back to the basics,” Bayer said. “ When you have such great leaders like KZ Adams, Tori Kelly, and Zach Glenn you lose a lot of the day-to-day grind. They knew what to expect. The group this year is learning the standard. The consistency from day-to-day is not there when you lose the leadership we have. The new guys are learning and are getting better. The thing is the packages and calls stay the same; the ability to make plays and know where to be has changed.”
So far this season, leading tackler Jordan Robinson, linebacker Blake Croft, linebacker Kaine Williams, and defensive linemen La La Radden have stepped up.
Bayer said coaching got in the way for Gray during its first three games when the War Eagles were giving up 48 to Oceanside Collegiate, 37 to Crestwood, and 48 to South Atlanta.
“ We tried to make too many perfect calls and protect one player or another,” Bayer said. “After we got back from the South Atlanta game, we got together as a defensive staff and decided we were just going to line up and do what we do. If someone can beat that, then they were just the better team that night.”
Since losing to South Atlanta, Gray’s defense has given up a total of 36 points in three games.
“ We told the guys the week of the Camden game that the program was on their watch now and they weren’t doing a real good job of representing it on the field,” Bayer said. “ The standard is there and they weren’t living up to it. I think it hurt some players. Practice was different that week. They played with some emotion and spirit.”
Gray was able to even its record this past Friday with a 51-29 win over Mid-Carolina, a game in which it was still evident some improvement was needed on defense. Bayer said there were three plays that accounted for 207 yards and a couple of scores for Mid-Carolina.
“One of our goals is to not give up a running play longer than 18 yards or a pass over 25 yards. We failed in both areas last Friday,” Bayer said.
He wants the defense to continue to work on preventing chunk plays as well as focus on the top goal, which is to shut out the opponent.
As for Holmes, while the current three-game winning streak has given his team some momentum, it has also allowed him to reach a milestone. A 57-0 win over the Eau Claire Shamrocks on September 23 gave Holmes his 100th win, dating back to his time as head coach at Orangeburg Prep.
“I was not aware of the milestone until last year’s state championship game and I was asked about my overall record,” Holmes said. “This isn’t just about what I’ve done, it’s about having great assistants at both Orangeburg Prep and Gray Collegiate. It’s about having great administration and great players. I may get the praise, but it’s their hard work that they have put in as well.”
Holmes also provided an update on the new football stadium. The concrete has been poured for the new bleachers, and the turf is expected in either this week or next.
According to Holmes, the stadium is expected to be ready by the first playoff game on November 5.
The War Eagles travel to Bolden Stadium Thursday, September 29 to take on the Columbia Capitals.