Bulldogs scrimmage in preparation for season opener
By Richard White
Head Coach Rick Jones, his staff, and the Greenwood Bulldogs are entering the final phase of their preparations for the upcoming gridiron season, and once again expectations are very high. Hooten’s Arkansas Football magazine has the ‘Dogs ranked #1 in Class 6A and the favorites to win the state title in 2017.
This past Monday, in a battle of the Bulldogs, Greenwood hosted Class 7A Fayetteville in a pre-season scrimmage at Smith-Robinson Stadium. Though no points were posted on the scoreboard during the nearly 3-hour-long skirmish, Greenwood outscored the Purple ‘Dogs 49-45.
The GHS varsity starters outperformed Fayetteville’s frontline players in the first two quarters, building a 35-10 lead at one point. But the visitors rallied during the junior varsity portion of the scrimmage and in a third varsity quarter to narrow the margin to just four points.
Incidentally, the scrimmage was a rematch between the two head coaches who met last December at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium in the 6A state championship game. Russellville’s Billy Dawson won that battle as his Cyclones topped the Bulldogs, 37-23. Dawson then parlayed his fourth overall state title (three at Nashville) into the top spot at Fayetteville, one of the best high school coaching jobs in the state.
Fayetteville is the state’s fifth largest high school with just over 2,100 students, while Greenwood is the smallest school in Class 6A with just under 900 students, and both are perennial powers in Arkansas high school football. Despite having their third head coach in three years, the Purple ‘Dogs have won consecutive 7A state titles and four in the last six years. Greenwood has played in but lost each of the last two 6A championship games.
As for Monday’s scrimmage, Coach Jones was moderately pleased. “I thought we executed pretty well,” he said. “We threw a couple of picks, which was disappointing, and we got a couple of picks, which was encouraging. We gave up big plays. It was sort or a back-n-forth affair.
“Overall I thought we threw and caught the ball well,” he continued. “I thought Connor [Noland] and Easton [Barrett] played pretty well. Our receivers sure caught the ball well, and did a good job blocking on the perimeter. Our guys up front did a good job and are getting better [too]. That was encouraging, because I had not been very happy with their play to this point.
“I was really happy the way we played in the first two quarters, and I wasn’t very happy with how we played in the fourth quarter. The varsity played the first, second, and fourth quarters, and I thought we came out flat in the fourth quarter, probably satisfied, and I don’t think we got after it as much as we should have.
“Overall it was a good practice for us,” said Jones. “We always [think] we have a good feel for where we’re at when we play somebody like Fayetteville. They’ve got their third coach in three years and I don’t think they’ve quite figured [things] out. They were very basic and didn’t try anything [fancy]. They’ve got some weapons – that wide receiver and quarterback are hard to handle.”
When asked about the scoring, the coach said, “I have no clue. I know that we scored more than they did early, and they scored more than we did late. But the situations were great. We got good work in situations.”
Turning to other matters, Jones revealed that he still has about 100 players in his program, down from just 102 at the end of spring football. Thirteen of those players are returning starters from last season.
“Every year you lose a couple of guys that just sort of floors you. It’s so disappointing,” he said. “Football is such a great opportunity for boys to be a part of something and have a sense of pride, and belonging, and community. I’ve not seen boys quit football and really do better.
“There are always exceptions,” he continued. “But I’ve never seen a guy quit football to improve his academic work that [actually] improved his academic work. This is my 40th year of coaching and I’ve just never seen it, because free time is the enemy of a young man.
“[So] we’ve lost a couple of guys. It’s always disappointing because I think it’s a bad day for them, and it’s a bad day for us too, because everybody contributes to the overall good. We’re fortunate that we have good numbers.” Those numbers were not affected by the scrimmage on Monday.
“We had nothing (injuries) reported last night,” said Jones, knocking on the corner of his wooden desk. “It was just not very physical. I thought, is this where football is going? There were just not many hard licks.
“We don’t do a lot of hitting in practice anymore because of concussion issues. We weren’t as physical as we need to be and they weren’t either. The emphasis on safety is a great way to go.”
Jones also shared that the officials briefed the coaches before the game that there would be a greater policing of high-impact collisions this season, penalizing teams and players, up to and including ejections and suspensions for unnecessary and avoidable incidents.
But while no injuries were reported after the scrimmage, there are still some concerns in that area, especially with senior running back Kenny Wood, who did not play in the scrimmage or in the spring game because of a tender hamstring muscle.
“He’s got to get well,” said Jones matter-of-factly. “He’s not 100%. It’s disappointing and frustrating. It’s the same issue he had in the spring.” Senior move-in Jace Garcia, who practiced in the spring and would have been #2 on the depth chart, is no longer with the team, having moved back to Camden.
“We started [junior] Marc Jones [at running back],” said the coach. “We played [Jackson] Webb and Nathan Sharp, and they all did some good things and some things that weren’t good. But if we need to go five wide receivers, we will,” said Jones.
Another move-in, sophomore Preston Jureka from Alma, also saw limited action in the backfield. “The Jureka kid got some time last night at running back with the JV group, and he made a nice run,” said the coach.
Another senior sidelined by injury is defensive lineman Josh Maze, who also missed the spring with an arm problem that required surgery. “He’s not out for the year,” said Jones, “but he’s seven to eight weeks [away] at best, and that’s disappointing because Josh had a great chance to start for us. If he comes back it will be the last third of the season.”
Maze’s absence may alter the team’s defensive scheme, said Jones, causing the Bulldogs to use three linemen and four linebackers rather that four down linemen. The move just fits the team’s personnel better.
One of the team’s strengths this season will be its receiving corps, with most of the top pass catchers returning from last season, including seniors Zane Harmon and Kade Orlicek and juniors Peyton Holt and Josh Barlow.
“We can go three wide or we can go five wide,” explained Jones. “[Senior Brayden] Cullen didn’t play [Monday] due to an injury. He’s about two weeks out. Phillip [Dygryn], our exchange student [from Austria], is a little banged up, so he didn’t get a chance to play. But I don’t think it’s anything serious.
“He’s got a chance [to help],” said Jones of Dygryn. “He’s got a good frame and he catches the ball great, but he’s not a burner. He made a special effort to be here early, because he wanted to play. He’s been a football player and not a rugby guy or soccer guy. He’s done amazingly well.
“We really need to have six guys – three inside and three outside,” said the coach. “The [receivers] played really well last night. We made some tough catches. I was very, very pleased with those guys.” Jones added that senior Wyatt Manes is in the mix at receiver along with others.
Throwing to those receivers this year will be two senior quarterbacks, starter Connor Noland and his backup, Easton Barrett. “The quarterbacks both played well,” said Jones of their scrimmage performance.
“Connor has probably gained 12 to 15 pounds,” he continued. “We had to buy him a new pair of shoulder pads. He looked great. And Easton Barrett just goes out there and does the right thing and knows what to do. I was very pleased with those guys.”
As for the #3 quarterback, Jones said, “I think it’s going to be Jace Presley. He’s a sophomore about 6’-3”. He has the third best arm, and he can throw the deep ball.” The coach said the team’s other quarterbacks, Timothy Earnhart and Blaze Moore, will likely see work at receiver for added depth.
Up front on the offensive line things haven’t changed much since the spring game. Returning starters this season include seniors Noah Sexton and Hayden Cantrell, plus junior Noah Fox.
Juniors Cole Ceniceros and Colton Simpson also started the scrimmage and that group made some positive strides, though there is still work to do, says the coach. Senior Isaac Schwartz is probably the sixth man right now, with junior Landon Sloan also figuring into the picture.
On the opposite side of the ball, senior Jon Womack will be at nose guard, anchoring the defense. “He and [senior Hunter] Webb and [junior Morgan] Hanna had a nice [scrimmage],” said Jones.
“The linebackers are getting better too. Those guys are doing well. We’ve got several guys at linebacker,” Jones continued, naming Nick Vota, Luke Johnson, Travis Cox, Sam Sandifer, and Camden Beshears as likely candidates for significant playing time.
In the secondary, senior Dylan Vota is currently battling a sprained ankle and did not play in the scrimmage, but returns at safety, with juniors Trey Woods and Dawson James likely filling two of the remaining spots with senior Ethan Escalante taking the final spot after being cleared recently to play following knee surgery. Escalante and Woods both had interceptions in the scrimmage.
The kicking game is solid with junior Grant Ennis returning with an even stronger leg, routinely banging the ball into the end zone on kickoffs, according to Jones. “Grant has made so much improvement in his strength and his distance.”
The job of punter is still up for grabs. Jones describes punting as a lost art, and used three different punters in the scrimmage, including quarterback Easton Barrett.
Overall, there are still several question marks that need answers before the season opener. “We’re going to talk personnel today because of the scrimmage,” said Jones last Tuesday morning.
“We’ve got to move some guys from offense to defense. We’re probably going to have at least four kids [play both ways]. We’re sure not set right now. The offensive line is still unstable. The scrimmage was a step forward, but it’s still a work in progress.”
In conclusion, Jones talked about the return of offensive line coach Brian Sims after a critical illness this past spring. “We had no hopes, dreams, or aspirations that he would be out there the second week of practice,” said Jones. “It’s just great having him back. He was trying to beat Coach Staton with his cane the other day, so we know he’s about back to normal.”
While able to attend practices, Sims has not yet returned to the classroom and will continue his recovery, including physical therapy, for several months to come. In the interim, the district has hired Alex Burris and Grant Haynes, two young and aspiring coaches to assist Coach Sims and the football program.