Young reflects on Bulldogs’ off-season efforts and ’21 schedule

Young reflects on Bulldogs’ off-season efforts and ’21 schedule

School is out for the summer, concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic have greatly diminished, and the Bulldogs will play their first football game of the 2021 season in just 10 weeks on August 27th. That game in week zero will be on the road at Muskogee, Oklahoma, a new non-conference opponent for Greenwood.

In fact, the Bulldogs play three of their first four games away from Smith-Robinson Stadium, at Muskogee, at Fort Smith Northside (Sept. 10th), and at Little Rock Parkview (Sept. 23rd). Only the September 3rd game against Fort Smith Southside will be at home before the start of 6A West conference play at Parkview. But four of Greenwood’s seven league games will be at home, including their last two against Van Buren (Oct. 29th) and Lake Hamilton (Nov. 5th).

The conference opener will be played on a Thursday night at War Memorial Stadium, the Bulldogs’ home away from home with 14 appearances there in the state championship game since 1996, winning 10 titles while losing four others. Fortunately, prior to the Parkview game the Bulldogs will have an open date on September 17th.

Head Coach Chris Young is now in his second year as the “Top Dog” after succeeding the ultra-successful Rick Jones, who moved on to the University of Missouri as a special advisor to head coach Eli Drinkwitz, a native of Alma, Arkansas. But Young tutored under Jones for 16 years and acquitted himself well last season, leading his team to the 6A state championship and an unbeaten record (14-0). He recently granted a phone interview to discuss the 2021 schedule and what has been a productive spring so far.

“We’ve had a great off-season,” he offered enthusiastically. “Our numbers have been good. We’ve got a big senior class (30), then we brought in a big sophomore class (46) as well. Our numbers are a little smaller in our junior class, but overall, we are really happy. We had as many as 110 [athletes] and we’re probably around 98 right now. You always lose some guys that don’t realize the time it takes to be part of the program. But we’re very happy with the group we have and the numbers we have and we’re excited.”

Back to the schedule, Young said, “We were a little worried about playing [Parkview] on a short week. But being able to get Muskogee in week zero was the perfect answer. Muskogee was down a little last year, but they had some really good players, and they’ve got a new coach this year. It will be an exciting first game for us.”

After Parkview, the Bulldogs will host Mountain Home and Siloam Springs in back-to-back weeks on October 1st and 8th, with the earlier date serving as the 2021 homecoming game. Then come road trips to Russellville and Benton on October 15th and 22nd followed by the two home games referenced earlier against Van Buren and Lake Hamilton to close out the regular season.

But despite his team’s unbeaten record last season, Coach Young maintains that 6A West opponents are not to be taken lightly. Parkview had several Division-1 college prospects who graduated, but the Patriots have managed to replenish that departed talent. Lake Hamilton lost to Greenwood in the finals but returns most of their starters. Benton was knocked out of the 2020 post-season by Covid-19, but remains a perennial power in Class 6A. Van Buren is a nearby rival that benefitted from dropping down from Class 7A and is improving, as are Siloam Springs, Mountain Home, and Russellville.

“[Parkview] reloaded and they are as talented as anybody in the state,” offered Young. “Lake Hamilton’s [players] are all back.” Add in Benton and Van Buren and “It’s going to be a challenge every week. If we don’t come out and play well and continue to improve, we’re going to be in trouble. We’re in a very good conference. From top to bottom it’s as good as there is,” said the coach.

As always, the 2021 off-season began in January, only a month after the Bulldogs claimed their 10th state championship in school history, all coming in the first two decades of the new century. But if attendance, effort, and dedication are any measure, there has been no let down in the Bulldogs’ desire to remain at the top of the heap.

“Our [weight room] attendance was outstanding this spring,” said Young. “Coach Gill runs our off-season program and does an outstanding job. We feel like we’ve got a strong football team. They’ve worked hard and put in a lot of time. It’s a huge advantage when you get there every day and everybody on the team is there. Our attendance was great, and we saw steady increases in our kid’s overall maxes.

But while the players remained focused on defending their current championship, their third in the last four years (2017-18), there have been some changes in the 2021 coaching staff. Two of the three assistants hired last year by Young have departed the staff, allowing for the hiring of two familiar names, including a former GHS quarterback.

“We’ve had a couple of changes,” explained Young. “Coach [Chase] Meyers is going to be a full-time assistant principal, and Coach [Zach] Watson, our offensive coordinator, was hired as the head coach at Elkins.” Meyers takes over the job formerly held by Young himself before becoming head coach, and Watson left for his first head coaching opportunity. Because of Greenwood’s amazing success on the gridiron, schools across Arkansas are always happy to interview GHS assistants. Both Meyers and Watson have already been replaced, revealed Young.

“We’ve hired Stephen Hogan – he was a quarterback for us back in 2010 – as our quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator, and we’ve promoted Coach [Austin] Moreton, our offensive line coach, to running game coordinator. Anybody that watched our offensive line last year saw what he did with those guys. He’s an outstanding young coach. It’s nice to be able to reward his work and give him a little more say-so in our offense. We trust that he can handle our running game and our pass protection.”

The other new addition to the varsity staff came from within the Bulldogs’ family. “We moved Josh Holloway up to special teams coordinator and running backs coach,” said Young. “He’s a heck of a football coach. He could have been moved up a long time ago, but he’s been so instrumental in the success of our junior high. But he put his time in down there and he deserves this opportunity.

“He’s run our junior high offense for the last ten years and will also be heavily involved in our offensive game planning. We have not hired his replacement yet. We’re waiting to see how the teaching fields work out and we’ll make a hire by July. But we’re excited about our staff changes. We feel like those guys have the ability to make our team better.

As for who will call the offensive plays this fall, Young is taking a wait-and-see approach, though it’s likely he will retain a significant role in that process as head coach and as a former offensive coordinator himself for many years under Coach Jones.

“We’ll play that by ear,” he said. “But I’m excited because I’ve got three other guys with me on the offensive side of the ball that can handle an offense. Coach Holloway has called plays for a long time. Coach Hogan was at Owasso, a top program in Oklahoma. He won two state championships there coaching quarterbacks. He moved to Sand Springs [OK] last year and was the offensive coordinator and play caller there. Along with Coach Moreton, it will be more of a team effort, the four of us. We will game plan together and everybody will have their input on Friday night.”

Although the Bulldogs are known for their wide-open offensive style and their high scoring potential, in recent years the defense has also performed at a high level, particularly since the arrival of Defensive Coordinator Jason Gill, a former head coach himself. Gill and his staff have created an effective mindset on defense and have plenty of returnees this coming season around which to construct another stellar unit.

“The defensive staff remains intact,” said Young. “We’re excited about that because I think they are the best around, led by Coach Gill. We had a great year defensively last season and we’ve got a lot of guys back with a lot of playing experience. On defense we’ve got five [returning players] and two on offense.

“We’ve got [Jeremiah] Presson and Luke Brewer back [on offense],” the coach continued. “Aiden Kennon started the second half of the season and Corben Webb rotated in quite a bit, so [we] could claim [four starters].” Presson is a senior offensive lineman while Brewer, also a senior, is the team’s top returning receiver. Another senior, Webb is an offensive lineman, while Kennon is a junior wide receiver with a lot of upside.

“But we’ve got some really good young football players,” added Young. “We’ve been to two team camps already and we’ve got a lot of guys competing for playing time. Anytime you’ve got competition it makes everybody better, so that’s been an advantage for us this year.” The incoming sophomore class is quite talented and went unbeaten last year as freshman, winning the River Valley Conference championship with a 10-0 record.

“We had a team camp last Friday (June 4th) at Greenwood. We had seven teams and the [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] came in and helped us. They fed the kids some fruit during the break and talked to them a little bit. It was an awesome day. The weather was beautiful and we had really good football teams [including] Fort Smith Northside, Fayetteville, Bentonville-West, Russellville, Alma, and Pulaski Academy.

“It was some really good football, and it gave us an opportunity to find areas we need to improve in. Our kids were highly competitive, but at the same time those teams pointed out some stuff we’ve got to get better at,” admitted the second-year head coach.

“We went to [Ouachita Baptist University] in Arkadelphia yesterday [June 9th] and there were 19 teams there. We played 11-on-11 in the morning and had a break for lunch, then played some more in the afternoon. Seeing the development and improvement in our team throughout the day was a real positive experience,” observed Young.

“Early on I felt we were a little out-of-whack and gave up some big plays on defense. But the second part of the day I felt like our offense, especially our quarterbacks, were really dialed in. Defensively, I thought our guys picked it up a level and were really physical, especially up front. We [wore] shoulder pads, helmets, and girdles. [Defensively], we hit them high and let them go. We don’t want to take guys to the ground. The goal is to get better and get everybody out healthy.

“We’re going to Alma tomorrow [June 11th] for a 7-on-7,” he continued. “They’ve got 24 teams and we’re actually going to enter two teams, just so we can get more reps. That’s going to be a new experience for us. With inexperienced quarterbacks and receivers, we feel like it will [give us] some additional opportunities to throw and catch,” he said. Young then explained the 7-on-7 format.

“On offense there are four wide receivers, a running back and quarterback, and somebody snapping the ball. On defense there are three linebackers, two corners, and two safeties. There are no offensive or defensive linemen and no pads, just helmets and shorts and it’s touch, not tackle. It’s great for our quarterbacks and receivers to work on their timing and the corners and safeties to get some experience.”

The coaching staff also experimented with a new format for the spring game held on May 27th. “We put our offense on one side and the defense on the other side, and put our heads together to come up with a point system to reward the defense.” The defensive unit was awarded points for stopping drives on downs or forcing punts and for sacking the quarterback and creating turnovers.

“There were a couple drives where the offense played pretty well, but the defense got after it,” said Young. “We had some players make good plays, but it also showed us things we need to work on this summer. We [also] didn’t handle the weather quite as well as I had hoped. It was the first really warm day of the year and we had been practicing in the mornings.” Conditions for the spring game were hot and humid. The defense won the contest, 46-30.

“That was our 10th day, so we got all 10 days in this year,” said the coach, referring to the maximum numbers of spring practice sessions allowed by the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA). “We practiced in the mornings so our baseball guys could be around. They did some drills, but we didn’t do anything involving contact with those guys. We wanted them to focus on trying to win a state championship in baseball. They are a little behind because they missed some spring practice, but they will get caught up this summer.”

As for the remainder of the month, Young said, “We’re going to lift weights three days a week – on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Next Monday (June 14th) we have a team camp at Northside. It will essentially be weightlifting after that until the [AAA] dead period. Then we’ll come back on July 12th to start our FASDOGS program. We expect a good turnout with a bunch of young Bulldogs out there learning our system.”

As for areas of improvement to receive special attention as pre-season workouts continue, the coach said, “We’ve got to get more physical on defense, and we’ve got to get better covering the pass. We’ve got some competition there and those guys have to do a better job of covering the deep ball. Defensively we’ve got a chance to be really good.

“We struggled moving the football, especially our #1s, so we’ve got to get more consistent offensively and establish some big play threats. We’ve got luke Brewer at outside receiver, but we’ve got to find some other guys who will step up and become a big play threat and stretch the field,” offered Young.

In the spring game the coach used four different quarterbacks, led by junior-to-be Hunter Houston, who served as the #2 signal-caller behind last year’s senior starter, L.D. Richmond. Besides junior varisty games, Houston played in almost every varsity game in 2020, mostly in a mop-up role in the second half after the Bulldogs built big early leads.

But Houston also started and took most of the snaps in the team’s 23-12 win over Choctaw, Oklahoma. In that game he was 18 of 27 for 212 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing a pair of interceptions. Houston is also a three-sport athlete, playing basketball and baseball while being the clear leader in the quarterback competition. Others who took snaps in the spring game were sophomores-to-be Slade Dean, Cole Kindle, and Jaden Wolf.

Another key offensive position is running back after the graduation of three-year starter Hunter Wilkinson. But Young expressed confidence the void could be filled by a combination of players. “We expect to have several guys fill that role by committee,” he said, explaining that the return of two players absent last season will make a big difference.

“Cameron Krone is back and recovered from a knee injury he suffered last year,” said Young of the senior-to-be. “Javon Williamson has been in our program [in junior high] and moved to Fort Smith last year and played at Southside, but has moved back to Greenwood.” Krone (5’10”-190) and Williamson (6’-182), an incoming junior, were both standout offensive performers as freshman.

“Then we’ve got a move-in from Tennessee named Dylan Tucker,” added the coach. “He’s a big, strong, physical kid that we started out on the defensive line, but have now moved to running back. He’s a physical specimen. He’ll hit you,” said Young of the 5’11”, 225-pound running back.”

At receiver the Bulldogs have no shortage of prospects behind Luke Brewer and Aiden Kennon, the team’s most experienced and talented pass catchers. “Aiden Kennon is back with a ton of experience, and we expect he will have a good year for us,” said Young. “Then we’ve got six or seven guys competing for those other two [receiver] spots, so it will be fun to see which of those guys steps up and takes those roles.”

On the offensive line, Young is stoked about the work of assistant coach Austin Moreton, a former lineman for Arkansas State, and the players who could move into significant roles this season along with returnees Jeremiah Presson and Corben Webb. Last year’s group showed much improvement under Coach Moreton’s guidance.

“We’re excited about our offensive line,” said Young. “Right now, we’ve got four seniors up there and a junior, and all those guys have a lot of experience. Two of them played a lot of varsity, and the other three started on the junior varsity last year, so we feel good about the development of those guys. They will continue get stronger and more physical. I think the key right now is developing some depth behind them, because it’s a long season, and things happen, and we need to have the backups ready to go.”

With over two months remaining before the season opener at Muskogee, there remains much work ahead for coaches and players alike, and some critical coaching decisions regarding the open positions yet to be filled. But rest assured that Young and his new-look staff will do all that’s required to prepare the Bulldogs for the 2021 campaign and the defense of their state championship. It should be another great season.

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