It’s here

Long-anticipated return to gridiron happening Friday for local high schools, Saturday for UAM

Football fanatics, the time has come. All three area schools kick off their regular seasons this weekend but only one plays at home.
Monticello visits Ashdown in a classic Class 4A matchup, Drew Central travels to Episcopal Collegiate in a game where the Pirates have a legitimate opportunity to grab their first win in 17 outings and the University of Arkansas at Monticello hosts Southwestern Oklahoma State University in a highly anticipated—since the Boll Weevils have the vast majority of their skilled-position players returning—clash of two Great American Conference schools.
Friday, Monticello kicks off at 7 p.m. in Ashdown; Drew Central starts at 7:30 p.m. in Little Rock. Saturday, UAM gets underway at 6 p.m. at Willis “Convoy” Leslie Cotton Boll Stadium.
Of the three, fans would be hard-pressed to find a bad contest, at least to hear the three coaches tell it. UAM’s Hud Jackson, Monticello’s Marty Davis and DC’s Rob Cox have all been chomping at the bit for this weekend for some time now.
“We are very excited about opening up at home,” Jackson, who is beginning his seventh season as head Weevil, said. “SWOSU is a very good football team and very talented.
“Our preparation for this game is different because you go off of what they did last year. We might have to make adjustments if they come out different. 
“Unfortunately, the weather may be bad so we are preparing for a wet field and possible rain. We just have to control our game plans and keep our focus no matter what is happening around us. This is a big game and we will be prepared.”
Despite the remnants of Hurricane Harvey likely to get everyone who coaches, plays or watches wet, Jackson said his charges are just happy to be hitting someone other than teammates Saturday.
“Our players have had a great fall camp,” he noted. “We are fairly healthy. Our guys are ready to compete and play hard.”
Both Davis and Cox agreed with that assessment.
“The first game of the 2017 football season is always exciting for the kids,” Davis said of his Billies. “The closer it gets the more anxious they become. All of the work that has been put into the season starting with spring practice through summer workouts finally pays off.
“Ashdown will have a very good football team. They will be loaded with team speed at the skilled positions and are a well-coached team. They did very well in their scrimmage game last week and will be just as tough.
“Offensively, they will be a spread attack with the ability to both run and pass. At the receiver positions, they have guys that can catch and run real well. Their running back could be one of the best in the state. Defensively, they will play using multiple fronts, they have good speed at the skilled positions and good size at the line of scrimmage. They will be a very tough game for us.
“This week, we got better at the things we did not do well at Camden (in an Arkansas Activities Association benefit scrimmage against Camden Fairview). We played hard, but still had areas we did not do well in. We have had very good practices and the kids are excited the season. We feel real good about playing our first game at Ashdown this Friday.”
Cox, who is still after his first win in Pirate Red and White, said he is encouraged with his senior-laden squad after watching them in the offseason and during the fall.
“We’re looking pretty good this year, a whole lot better than last year,” the head Pirate said. “We’ve improved drastically over the offseason. This summer, we were able go to a couple of team camps and a couple of 7-on-7 competitions—and really compete, where last year, we were not competing every time we stepped on the field. Now it’s different; we’re definitely competing.
“The kids are excited about it. The team camp we went to in Little Rock, with eight teams there, was where we really showed out. The kids were really excited about seeing the amount of success they were having that day. They were ready to go play a football game right then.
“We were running folks over and we were tackling people in the backfield, neither of which had been done before. I think they really saw how an offseason program correlates over to the sport of football. Fall practice has been good because of that.
“Kids are doing things they never thought they could do, they’re a whole lot better athletes now, they’re making plays and doing the little things. Conditioning’s always a factor and we’re working on that, as well. That’s something everybody does; that’s not different. But the offseason has really helped as far as the depth of our team goes—everybody is better now.”
At this point of the season, every coach is fond of reminding his players that “everybody’s 0-0.” All three local coaches said they fully expect to still have a zero in the loss column following the first week of action.
Their rosters would tend to back up their bravado, too. All three teams have talent—and it’s in all the right places.
At UAM, All-American wide receiver Jalen Tolliver returns for his senior season. Tolliver caught 69 passes for 1,090 yards (a 15.8 yards-per-catch average) and scored 14 touchdowns as a junior last fall. He recorded at least one receiving touchdown in 10 straight weeks during the season, finishing just shy of breaking multiple UAM receiving records and he was the first Weevil since 2004 to finish a season with more than 1,000 yards receiving.
The Rayville, La. native ended 2016 only 155 yards away from breaking Von Mixon’s single-season mark of 1,245 yards (2004) and 775 yards away from UAM’s career receiving record. He finished the season as the GAC leader in receiving touchdowns, receiving yards, receptions, receptions per game (6.3) and receiving yards per game (99.1).
Probably throwing even more passes his way in 2017 is quarterback Cole Sears. The Hoxie junior completed 224 of 404 passes last year for 2,972 yards and 24 touchdowns in his sophomore campaign—and has long been established as the Weevils’ top signal caller. Sears, who only threw 12 interceptions a year ago, ended 2016 just short of becoming UAM’s third quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season.
At running back, the Weevils and Billies have something in common. Monticello’s own Imani Riley returns—and he’s healthy. Riley led UAM in rushing a year ago with 611 yards on 118 carries. He scored five times, even though his late-season play was limited because his was banged up.
Lest opponents this those three weapons are all UAM has this season, senior Trevon Smith and classmate Jamal Chevis will get their share of passes thrown their way.
Smith hauled in 44 passes for 441 yards and scored four times a year ago (the majority of those coming in the last year games), while Chevis—UAM’s primary kick returner (with a 21.8-yard average and one score)—added 14 catches for 142 yards. Smith recorded the Weevils’ longest pass reception of 2016, a 97-yard touchdown against rival Southern Arkansas University in the season finale.
Sophomore Deountario Brown was more than an able backup when Riley went down a year ago. As a true freshman, Brown rushed for 477 yards on 88 carries and two touchdowns. And Jackson said UAM has added depth at that position in the form of junior college transfer Nigel Dore and redshirt freshman Logan Penn.
At Monticello, quarterback/running back/wide receiver/safety/kick returner Ryan Lambert will take his turn at leading the Billies after two years of understudying graduated Jeff Carmical. Lambert completed only four of 10 passes for 56 yards and two touchdowns—and ran in another score—last fall in limited action as a signal caller.
“We lost a real good quarterback last year,” Davis said when talking about his team for Gridiron Report 2017 (which can be found inside today’s edition of the Advance-Monticellonian). “He had started long enough to where he was pretty much a coach in the huddle. He could pretty much get everybody set.
“The one we have this year is a better athlete and he’s familiar with what we’re doing offensively—but not necessarily from a quarterback standpoint. He brings a lot more athleticism to the position and he throws the ball a lot better than people give him credit for. We lost a lot, but we also have a lot coming back to fill that position.”
Lambert is not the only weapon the Billies have at their disposal, either. Among the other players Davis said he is high on are his stable of running backs—seniors Cain Preston, Zae Marshall and Aaron Spencer, juniors Kevious Simpson and Braylyn Owens, and sophomore Jorden Ollison. Senior Tyon Rhodes is back to lead a talented, if inexperienced, group of receivers.
At Drew Central resides one of the best backs in Arkansas, not only in 3A but all of Arkansas. Senior Montiel Daniels is among the 15 players Cox is counting on heavily—his upperclassmen.
“The senior class has been the bulk of the team for two years now,” the second-year coach said in Gridiron Report 2017. “It’s a big class, and it should correlate over to having a good season. Usually, by the time kids are seniors, it means something to them. They really want to do something because this is their last year to play high school football. The senior class this year should have a lot of success whereas in the past, they haven’t.”
Daniels is not the only talented skilled-position senior to be wearing Pirate Red and White, to be sure. Ansin Lattimore, Rico Rhodes (when he recovers from a devastating injury suffered last season) and Bradley Bittle are others who should stand out for Drew Central in its Single Wing offense.
All three schools have another thing in common beside opening this weekend, too. All football teams, in reality, are only as good as the big men up front—and all three coaches said they think they have an outstanding group of linemen that just might be the strength of all three squads.
“This year, across the line, we’re going to be bigger than the line we had at Camden Fairview (a 5A school),” Cox said of Drew Central. “We’re going to be averaging 260 (pounds per player) and it could go up to about 270. When you’ve got that at the 3A level, you’ve got a chance to really move some people because kids are going to get tired of 270 pounds hitting them all night.
“That’s a plus, with the fact of how strong they’ve gotten in the offseason. It’s going to definitely carry over. There’s a lot of kids in that group—and a lot of big ones—so we’re real excited about our linemen, plus we have a lot of seniors in that group. I like the leadership and the fact they hold each other accountable.”
Seniors Zach Cater, Devante’ Foster, Jessy Hill and Kyle Smith are the reasons Cox is so optimistic about his lines, on both sides of the ball. Down the street, both Davis and Jackson said they have more depth in that group than at any time since they’ve been head coaches here.
“We’ll have seven or eight guys rotating on both the offensive and defensive lines,” Davis mentioned. “We know what we’re getting with (Parker) Adams, (Charleston) Pippen, (Eric) Evans and (Dadrian) Millett, and (Anthony) Woodard has impressed us. Plus, Aaron Hampton played a little H-back last year but never got on the field has been moved to left guard—and that’s his home. He’s going to be able to help us there.”
Newcomer LeWayne Lenior should be one of the standouts for UAM in an offensive line that could easily average more than 300 pounds per player. Others to watch out for include Frank Jackson, Dez Bedford and Malik Moore—all returning starters—plus talented younger players like Keaton Phillips, Ian Debord and Jackson Bray.  
As all football fans know, offensive displays are showy but defense wins championships. All three coaches said they’re confident their defenses can stop opponents this fall. At both Monticello and Drew Central, that means players are going to have to play both ways.
“We’ve got guys that are going have to be iron men,” Davis said of his Billies—a thought no doubt in Cox’s mind at Drew Central as well. “The only time some of them will leave the field is halftime and the end of the game for us to be successful and as good as I think we can be. I think they’re starting to accept that and starting to realize that that they’re going to have to do that. It’s going to add to us being a little bit tougher—especially mentally when it gets to crunch time.”
Top defensive performers on the high school level in Monticello this season should be Drew Central’s Bittle, a linebacker who was the Pirates’ leading tackler a year ago, and Monticello’s Lambert, one of the top safeties in 4A.
Not that those are the only two prepsters to watch on that side of the ball, by any means. It just that the majority of both Billies and Pirates will be on the field a lot, and the coaches have to decide who fits where.
“We’re going to rely on a lot of our kids to play both ways,” Cox mentioned, a sentiment echoed by Davis. “Will they start both ways? I don’t know. We’re figuring out who we can play where, how we can get them rest and all that.”
Jackson, of course, has the luxury of being fully two-platooned and said he has been pleased with the progress of his new 3-4 defense.
“We picked up some good players,” he noted in Gridiron Report 2017. “Hakim Gray come to us from Louisiana Tech last year but he played pretty banged up the entire year. He’s healthy now. Picking up Shalom Alvarez at defensive end and Justin Akins as a three-tech from Middle Tennessee has been huge for us. Those guys are really good football players. Plus, Richard Lolohea is back for is at the nose position, which we’re excited about.
“At linebacker, we’ve got Ja’lon Watts coming back. Ja’lon’s an all-conference type player. At the Mike linebacker, we’ve got Wesley Williams and Josh Meis. The nickel linebacker is where Curtis Williams, a young man who didn’t play for us last year, should shine. Gabe Brace has done a  tremendous job, too, and when C.J. Hawkins gets back (from an injury suffered in fall practice), he will be in the mix.
“At the safety position, Christian Jefferson is tremendous. He has a great redshirt freshman year last year. He’s real smart and a real physical player. The one back I’m really exciting about in the defensive backfield is Will Jennings. Will has really come on during the spring and fall camps. I’m hoping for great things from him.
“At corner, we’ve got Deon Knox, a young man we signed in January, and we really like him. Jeremy Jackson was moved from running back to corner in the spring and he has done a tremendous job. Those two guys are going to anchor the corners. Then we’ve got a couple of younger guys back there but we feel good about that position.
“That back half has been challenged during this fall camp with our offense. We feel like we’ve got some talented receivers, so they’re going up against some talented guys every day. We feel like that’s going to be a huge plus for us.”
Weather permitting, all three coach should begin answering any questions they might still have this weekend.

The Advance-Monticellonian

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