The countdown has begun until the 2019 high school football season starts in September, just three months from now. It’s a big deal in a lot of small cities and towns across America, but none more than in Greenwood, where the Bulldogs have dominated for the last 15 years.
Coincidentally, 2004 was the first year for GHS Head Coach Rick Jones, an accomplished Oklahoma transplant, and Jones has led his Bulldogs to eight state titles and 11 championship games overall.
Greenwood has been in the last four 6A state title games, winning the last two, and is perennially one of the top teams in the state, regardless of classification. This year’s squad returns nine players with significant starting experience at the varsity level, five on offense and four on defense.
The Bulldogs held their annual Blue-White spring scrimmage on Thursday, May 23rd, and Coach Jones recently granted a lengthy interview to the Dog Pound to discuss the spring game and the state of the program as we approach the 2019 season.
Asked for his general observations regarding the inter-squad scrimmage, Coach Jones said, “Spring games are hard to evaluate because your going against yourself. The good part is that we made some big plays in the passing game. But if you make yards in the passing game that means you gave up yards in the passing game.
“We had a sense going into [the game] that Jace was going to be able to throw the football. He was staying in the pocket. He’ll take a hit, and that was the main thing we wanted to see.
In the game itself, senior-to-be quarterback Jace Presley tossed four touchdown passes as the White team put up 28 points in the first half.
Presley guided the first-team offense to touchdowns on its first two scoring drives, hitting receiver Lazaro Angel for a 5-yard scoring pass over the middle, ending a seven-play drive to open the scrimmage. He then connected with Caden Brown for a 4-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead.
The 6-4 Presley later threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Angel, converting a fourth-and-17 play into points, and polished off the first half with a short touchdown pass to junior running back Hunter Wilkinson.
“Jace stayed in the pocket and threw well under pressure,” said Jones. “Peyton Carter made some nice catches and Laz made some nice catches. The first drive, we just lined it up and went.”
Carter and Lazaro will begin the season as the go-to pass-catchers for Greenwood due to a lower body injury to Treyton Dawson, now entering his senior year.
“We have a chance with [Carter and Laz] to throw the ball up and let those guys go get it, and that’s what they did [in the scrimmage],” said Jones.
Dawson, the team’s top receiver with 58 catches for 851 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018, may not be back until the start of conference play in late September or early October.
In fact, 11 Bulldogs were withheld from last month’s spring scrimmage due to injury, though Dawson’s was the most serious. Also missing in action was senior offensive lineman Nathan Nethers, who also doubles as the team’s deep snapper. He is expected back soon.
Returning starting running back Hunter Wilkinson was also used sparingly in the scrimmage, but only because the coaching staff already knows what the junior brings to the table. The real competition is for the #2 running back position. Junior Caden Franks and senior Aaron Ligon are both in the mix.
But the coach was not happy with the running game in the scrimmage.
“Offensively, we have to run the ball better. I was very disappointed in running the ball. We have an idea what Hunter [Wilkinson] can do. There was no need to keep banging him up in there in the spring game.
“But we’ve got to find some other guys back there to take the load. Caden Franks is out right now with [an injury] and I think he’s got a chance to get some of those reps.”
Jones added that Caden Brown and L.D. Richmond, both juniors, are working well at the slot position. Brown may be the fastest player on the team, while Richmond also serves as the backup QB.
“We made some plays throwing the football,” said Coach Jones, who begins his 31st year as a head coach with the last 15 of those at Greenwood.
“Defensively, we moved around well, sort of like I expected. We don’t do a lot of live tackling in practice, so there’s always an adjustment period when you first go out there.”
Presley, along with juniors L.D. Richmond and Coleton Payton, took all the snaps at quarterback. Sophomore-to-be Noah Jantzen, last year’s impressive junior high QB, at present is being looked at as a slot receiver, said Jones. Presley has been the junior varsity starter the past two seasons.
“I think those three guys will be efficient throwing the ball,” Jones said. “Jace has a good arm. He made good decisions and took care of the ball. He found open guys. I was proud of him. He stayed in the pocket, and we didn’t have a clean pocket for him all night.”
Both Presley and Carter are 6-4 and could develop into a lethal combination against much shorter defensive backs.
Speaking of Presley, Jones said, “He’s been the quarterback of that group [of seniors] since the seventh grade. He’s had a ton of reps in our system. He knows what to do. He understands it. He’s ready. It’s his time.
“He has a different skill set, but I think Jace will surprise some people. He will run it when he has to, and I think he will be better than some people think. He’s going to be a pocket passer. If we can give him time, with our receivers and his arm strength, I think we’ll be okay.”
The coach also touted Presley’s height (6-4) as a major plus for his position. “I’ve never been 6-4,” said Jones laughingly, “but I can imagine that you can see better. And when you’re throwing to someone who’s 6-4, that makes it even better,” referring to receiver Peyton Carter.
Regarding Carter, Jones said, “It’s going to be fun to watch him. I think if he continues to work hard over the summertime, he can be a force for us next [season]. He’s got a chance to make a lot of plays for us this year.”
Carter had receptions of 61, 32, and 30 yards in the spring scrimmage. He will be among the tallest receivers in the 6A West, perhaps in the state.
“We made some good plays in our passing game,” Jones said. “[But] we have to protect better and we have to do a better job up front of running the football. The offensive line – we’ve got to get a lot better.”
The Bulldogs’ first-team offense suffered eight sacks in the opening half of the scrimmage, though they were either touch sacks or timed sacks to protect the quarterbacks.
Nethers is Greenwood’s most experienced returning offensive lineman, starting eight games last year, including all three playoff games, at right tackle. Senior Kevin Douglas had four starts and senior Traven Nichols had one start last season, and they are the only other linemen with varsity experience.
Christian Brown, Braden Stein, and Easton Erwin, all juniors-to-be, were among those who worked on the offensive line in the scrimmage with the first-team offense. Senior lineman Halen Carter has also been moved from defense to offense.
But while the O-line is light on experience, it does have good size. Stein weighs in at 285, Douglas at 272, Nichols at 232, and Brown at 231. Another player being strongly considered for duty is sophomore Jeremiah Presson, who played on the defensive side in junior high.
“Kevin [Douglas] and [Braden] Stein will tilt the field,” said Jones of his right side combo.
“On defense, I think we’ll be okay,” Jones said. ’We’re a little bit light up front. When we play teams that want to pound the ball at us [on the ground], that may be problematic.
“But our defensive coaches do a good job of teaching leverage and pad level. They’re going to move around and try to make some things happen. They’re going to be very aggressive. It will be a work in progress, but I think the defense is going to be okay,” said Jones.
[Senior] Coleton Erwin is the lone returner up front that started in last year’s state championship game. Juniors Beau Asher and Tayshaun Leader also worked up front this spring.
In the defensive backfield, senior starting linebacker Travis Cox and senior starting safety Logan Workman are both back, along with senior Leighton Johnson, who has seen time at linebacker.
Sophomore Parker Gill, the son of defensive coordinator Jason Gill, will likely get reps at linebacker this fall, along with senior Eli Martin. Sophomore Tyler Crossno, another defensive star for the Junior Bulldogs last season, will also get a long look by defensive coaches.
Along with Gill, Crossno, Jantzen, and Presson, Jones indicated that two other sophomores, Colin Dagget and Luke Brewer, are also getting solid reps with the varsity squad.
Asked to rate his team on a scale of one-to-five, Jones said his Bulldogs were probably a three on the experience meter, a two on the size meter, especially on defense, and a three on the speed scale.
“What we have to do is be quick and conditioned so that we can run faster than the other guys in the third and fourth quarters,” said the coach.
But when it comes to a winning tradition, Jones said, “That’s a five. It counts for a lot, but it’s also a two-edged sword. Everybody that plays us wants to knock us off. When we lose they celebrate like it’s the Super Bowl. If I’m proud of anything over the last 15 years, it’s that we’ve been consistent in going out and playing hard.”
Asked to evaluate the off-season so far, Jones said, “I’ve been pleased. Our kids work hard. We don’t have to bullwhip those guys to get them to work. I think it’s been a good off-season.”
The coach also addressed the kicking game with the graduation of state record-holder Grant Ennis. Taking over for Ennis and wearing his number is senior Jackson Stewart.
“Grant was unbelievably awesome,” Jones said. “But I think we’re going to be okay. I just think he’s got to get used to people being in the stands and the lights being on. I think he’s going to be fine.
“He’s got the leg and the mental makeup. He did a super job punting for us last year. He’ll get better as the year goes on.”
Regarding the #17, Jones said, “That number is special to me, because that’s the one Kevin wore,” referring to his son, who also kicked for the Bulldogs and was a top-notch receiver just a few years ago.
Asked about the conference race next fall, Jones said, “Benton has a ton of kids coming back. I think Benton is the team to beat. How El Dorado adjusts to their new coach is going to be interesting. I think Russellville is going to be better. Lake Hamilton will have two years under their belt running that offense, so we’ll have our hands full. I think Siloam Springs will surprise some people, so it’s going to be tough.”
“The key thing is getting a good look at these guys in the team camps coming up and trying to get a good evaluation of them. It’s always good to be able to go live.”
Greenwood hosted a team camp this past Monday with Pulaski Academy, Fort Smith Northside, and Fayetteville joining the Bulldogs. Greenwood also participated in a team camp at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia on Wednesday.
The AAA’s mandatory dead period begins the last week of June and extends until the second week of July, followed by four weeks of FASDOGS training by the Bulldogs prior to the start of pre-season practice in early August.
Greenwood will host Fayetteville in a pre-season scrimmage on Thursday, August 22nd, before opening the season on September 6th at home against the Northside Grizzlies. The Bulldogs will open 6A-West play on September 27 at renovated Scott Field against the Little Rock Hall Warriors.
Coach Jones enters this season with an overall record of 307-72, with a mark of 175-24 at Greenwood. He has already been inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and earned numerous coaching awards, including National Coach of the Year in 2012.