Jones shares thoughts on Coach Sims, spring football, and coming season
By Richard White
Rick Jones is one of the most successful high school head football coaches in Arkansas and America over the past 13 years, winning six state titles and playing for three others since coming to Greenwood in 2004. But the spring of 2017 has probably been his most challenging.
The schedule has been crazy for sure, with spring sports ending late this year and Greenwood’s baseball team making a deep run into the playoffs, preventing several players from taking part in spring football drills. But that pales in comparison to the real reason things have been so hard.
The critical illness and absence of assistant coach Brian Sims has been on the hearts and minds of the entire GHS family, both inside and outside of football, including Coach Jones, the man who hired Sims to coach the offensive line for the Bulldogs.
Sims has been in a Tulsa hospital for over a month battling for his life after contacting a rare and very serious skin condition, requiring placement in the intensive care wing of the hospital’s burn unit for several weeks now. During that time he was on a ventilator to breathe, a feeding tube for nourishment, and dialysis for his failing kidneys.
It was touch-and-go for several days at the end of May, but Coach Sims is doing better now. He is showing definite signs of improvement, according to his wife, Belinda, but still has a long and difficult road ahead to achieve full recovery.
“He’s making progress, and that’s a long time coming,” said Jones. “The family has been called in three times in the last two weeks to say their goodbyes and he’s survived all three of those. He’s still in critical condition, but it’s just a process.
“It’s a challenge,” admitted Jones regarding the unusual circumstance. “It’s not something they cover in coaching school. It’s like everything else. If you have a teacher out, you get a substitute. So we’re going to [try] to find a substitute coach and do the best we can.
“I think in the next three weeks we’re going to have a better idea,” he added. “To be honest, we’re just so thankful that [he’s] had a good several days here. We’re not in any kind of tight time frame. There’s no reason to rush it. We don’t get cranking until July 10th. We’re going to hope for the best.”
In the meantime, junior high line coach Eric Daniels has chipped in to help along with the rest of the varsity staff. “We’re comfortable with that. We can make that work,” said Jones.
As for the tricky spring schedule, the coach said, “It was a little bit different. We actually backloaded the dates, because [the AAA] let us go an extra week, although they didn’t increase the number of [practice] days. So we set three days up on that last week, even after the spring game.
“With Coach Sims’ situation there were two days when things were really tenuous for him and I just didn’t feel like practice was a good idea. So we ended up rescheduling one [practice] and cancelling another. We had a big scrimmage set up for that Wednesday, but that was a really bad day [for Coach Sims] and I don’t think any of us really felt like [practicing].”
Jones and his staff got a much better idea of where the Bulldogs stand after they hosted several of the top schools in the state last Wednesday (May 31st) for a team camp, including three reigning state champions. The Bulldogs were involved in almost 300 plays during the fast-paced camp.
“It was a good experience for us,” said the coach. “It showed us the warts. Pulaski Academy is really good. Broken Arrow (OK) is a lot better than last year. Fort Smith Northside is always very, very talented, and Russellville, Fayetteville, and PA are all returning champions. So we knew we would have good competition.
“We’ve got some things we need to work on,” Jones continued. “But we also had some guys who weren’t able to participate. We tried Kenny [Wood] for a while and he wasn’t able to go. It’s a hamstring issue. Josh Maze I don’t think is going to be able to play this year. He has a recurring problem with his arm. Sam Sandifer wasn’t able to go. He had surgery on a finger. But that’s part of it.
“We weren’t nearly as good as we need to be in the offensive line, and that was very disappointing,” said Jones. “The easy excuse is that they didn’t have their coach. But we’ve got three [returning starters] up there that have got to step up and lead us through tough times. But we’ll get better there.
“The defense looked really good, I thought,” Jones added. “They’re flying around. They’re aggressive. We’ve got a couple spots that are still wide open. And because Josh [Maze] is not able to go, we’re transitioning to more of a three-down as opposed to a four-down front. It suits our temperament and talent right now. I think it’s important that we’re multiple [flexible] and able to do several different things up there.
“Secondary-wise I thought the guys looked good. Ethan Escalante is still rehabbing, but he looks awesome. I’m so proud of him. He’s staying involved. Staying active and staying up with his rehab. He had ACL [knee] surgery in December and it’s going to be August or September before he is released [to play].
“We did have a running back that moved in from Camden-Harmony Grove that looks like a really nice player,” revealed Jones. “He seems like a really nice kid. Physical and tough.
“I think he’s going to be able to help us. We experimented a little with a two-back set, but it’s hard to tell how that’s all going to work out.” The name of the player in question is Jace Garcia, a senior.
The Bulldogs have most of their top receivers returning from last season, including Zane Harmon, Peyton Holt, Kade Orlicek, and Josh Barlow among others. Jones indicated that they performed adequately during the team camp. “Our receivers were okay, but I expect them to be a lot better than okay. I was proud of the way they competed. They got smoked a few times and they just kept going. Our receivers are going to be fine. We should be fairly deep there.
“We did a horrible job protecting the quarterback,” lamented Jones. “The offensive line has got to step up and grow up and take responsibility for themselves. I was very disappointed in them as a unit. We have three [returning starters] up there that ought to be doing more. But it’s a work in progress.
“Overall, I still believe we’re going to have a good football team, but we’ve got to have some guys step up and some guys have a really great summer of preparation. We should be good. If we’re not a good football team it’s [our] own fault.”
The Bulldogs have 13 starters returning from last season, the most they’ve had in a while. “That’s the largest number we’ve had in several years,” said Jones. “But we’ve got a lot of guys that played, so we have a good number of [them] back. But if you’re not careful you can get a false sense of security, because I don’t think that we were as good last year as we were the year before and the results were similar.”
For anyone who doesn’t remember, the Bulldogs went 12-0 the past two years before losing in the 6A state title game to Pine Bluff in 2015 and Russellville in 2016.
“I really think the 6A was down [last year] and the conference was down, and I expect a lot of those teams to be better,” explained Jones. “[Fort Smith] Southside’s going to be considerably better. Alma will be better. El Dorado will definitely be better. I know Texarkana will be better. They’ve got a [new coach] and a great group of kids who are juniors. Lake Hamilton and Sheridan also have new coaches.”
Once again Greenwood is well-stocked at quarterback, with six players donning the yellow practice jerseys. But there’s a big gap between the top two, both seniors, and the rest of the pack. The starter will be Connor Noland, ably backed up by Easton Barrett.
“Connor and E.B. didn’t have a chance,” said the head coach of their efforts during the team camp. “There were people in their mess kit before they even got the snap from center. But they’re going to be fine. I think Connor will be better than he’s ever been. It’s his time.
“The way the season worked out last year he took about 75 to 80% of the snaps from game seven on.” Jones did say he would monitor Noland’s throwing and spread out some of the practice reps to protect the senior’s arm. He also pitches for the Diamond ‘Dogs.
A good number of those reps will go to Easton Barrett, who has quarterbacked the junior varsity team for the past two seasons. “Easton just keeps getting better and better,” said Jones. “We feel great with Easton. He’s done fine. We’re in a spot where we can get him reps and work, and he will just keep getting better.”
As for running back, the team returns senior Kenny Wood, although he has been slowed for the past couple of months with a hamstring injury. If healthy, Wood should rush for over 1000 yards next fall. But depth has been a problem at running back. That’s why Jace Garcia is such a good find.
“Garcia (5-9, 180) is a heck of a move-in,” said Jones. “I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player. He runs physical and tough and he’s not afraid of contact. He was really impressive the three or four days he’s been with us, and we have high hopes for him.”
“Mark Jones is the third back,” said Jones. “It’s sort of a tossup with the other guys. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we have to play three or four backs.”
Garcia is just one of several expected newcomers this season. “We’re going to have five guys who weren’t here last year,” said Jones. “Two of them practiced with us Wednesday, and the others won’t be here until around FASDOGS time.” One of the newcomers is a foreign exchange student who played in American style football as a receiver in Austria.
The coach also acknowledged that running the quarterback will likely happen less this coming season than the last two years. Noland and graduated quarterback Luke Hales provided a dual running threat that made it hard on opposing defenses.
“Connor is probably a better runner when it’s not a running play,” said Jones. “He has incredible feet, speed, and quickness. He’s able to create and buy time. But I don’t think we’re going to call nearly as many quarterback runs as we did [last year].
“Our offense is flexible enough that we can play two running backs or five receivers or even a tight end from time to time,” said Jones. “There’s a lot of room to adapt to our talent. We have the pieces to the puzzle, we just have to figure out the right places to put them.”
Noland and Barrett will have several targets to choose from when throwing the ball this season. “We have a little bit bigger targets,” said Jones, referring to senior receiver Zane Harmon and junior Josh Barlow, both of which are over six feet tall.
Junior Peyton Holt is another player with a lot of potential at the receiver position. “Peyton has the ability to be a real playmaker,” said the coach. “He might not be as fast as he is quick. But he can get loose and has tremendous hands. He has a knack for getting open. His route running has gotten better. He’s one of the guys we count on to be a playmaker.”
But as always, everything on offense starts with the big boys up front. Returning starters on the offensive line this season include seniors Noah Sexton and Hayden Cantrell, plus junior Noah Fox.
“Those are the guys who started last year,” said Jones. “We’re just not sure about those other two spots. Nobody has quite stepped up.” The coach offered several names of players who are in the running for those vacancies, including senior Isaac Schwartz and juniors Cole Ceniceros, Landon Sloan, and Colton Simpson. “We’ve got work to do there,” said Jones.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are anchored by one of the best in the state in senior nose guard John Womack. “We don’t block him in practice and it looked to me like everyone else had troubled blocking him out here the other day,” observed Jones. “So he ought to be that force in the middle. With John anchoring things we should be pretty stout up front.”
The coach said that senior Hunter Webb will fill one of the spots on the defensive front, with Morgan Hanna and Caleb Martin, both juniors, also vying for playing time. “We should have a real good pass rush,” he added.
“We’ve got several guys at linebacker,” Jones continued, then named Nick Vota, Luke Johnson, Travis Cox, Sam Sandifer, and Camden Beshears as possible candidates. “I think Nick Vota is going to be fun to watch,” said Jones. “Dylan [Vota] got to play quite a bit last year at safety and did a great job. They’ve got a good motor on them.”
In the secondary, Dylan Vota returns at safety with Trey Woods and Dawson James likely filling two of the remaining spots while the team awaits the return of Escalante.
And once again Coach Jones hopes to play 22 different guys – 11 on offense and 11 on defense. “The last two years we’ve basically been straight platoon,” he said. He added that there could be four to six guys who might see double duty on both sides of the ball, but only occasionally. “We’ve got 102 players on the roster right now, so we should be able to straight platoon.”
The place kicking duties will once again fall to returning starter Grant Ennis, a junior. But punting is another thing, said the coach. “Punting is a lost art. Punters are hard to find. I’m really considering that we just don’t punt as much. We work on the kicking game every day, but it’s open audition.
“We’re bigger up front offensively and defensively,” said Jones. “We sort of look like a 6A team now. I’d like to be a lot faster than we are, but we’ve got some guys who are football fast.
“We just need to make some improvements next week when we go up to Springdale.”