BY TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor
The Jacksonville Red Devils didn’t get where they wanted to be this year, but they did come a long way.
A year after it won just two games, Jacksonville became a 7A/6A-East Conference contender and a playoff qualifier in its first season under coach Rick Russell.
The Red Devils’ run ended with a 30-6 loss at Pine Bluff in the second round of the postseason, but Russell was happy with his team’s performance during the season.
“We’re real proud of the kids,” Russell said. “Week in, week out they came to practice very businesslike in their approach. They prepared for that week’s opponent.”
Jacksonville, the No. 3 seed from the East, beat Sheridan 31-7 in the first round of the playoffs and stayed with Pine Bluff for a quarter before the Zebras came to life, holding the Red Devils to 29 yards over the final three periods.
Pine Bluff earned the No. 2 seed in the South and was coming off a first-round bye.
“We felt like we could push a little further but Pine Bluff is a good football team,” Russell said. “They just won the battle in the trenches. They wore us down.”
It may be a bit misleading to say Russell is a first-year coach. After 15 years on the Jacksonville staff he spent last season as head coach across town at North Pulaski before returning to the program where he spent so much timeas defensive coordinator.
Russell replaced Mark Whatley, who left to join the staff at Springdale.
“We started in the middle of July and it was a good year, a good year,” Russell said. “I thought our season was successful because of the interaction of the coaches and the players.”
Jacksonville opened the year against non-conference rival Cabot in War Memorial Stadium, with 7A Cabot winning 28-14. Within its own classification, Jacksonville had more non-conference success, beating Benton and Hot Springs.
On statewide television Sept. 23, Jacksonville opened conference play with a 26-2 victory over Mountain Home at Jan Crow Stadium.
The Red Devils’ conference losses were to Jonesboro — which took the top seed from the East — at home against West Memphis as they fell out of conference championship contention and at Marion in the season finale the following week.
But Jacksonville responded with its convincing playoff victory over Sheridan.
“The seniors led real well,” Russell said. “They had great attitude. They did what we asked them to do the way we asked them to do it.”
The Red Devils must replace 21 seniors, including quarterback Logan Perry, a three-year starter.
“He’s been in the wars,” Russell said. “He’s been a very positive influence in that huddle. That quarterback on offense is always going to be missed.”
Other significant losses will be cornerbacks Tyler Crook and Kenny Cummings, Russell said, as well as explosive two-way player Antwone Mosby.
“A running back and linebacker,” Russell said of Mosby. “That’s two spots right there.”
Russell said Jacksonville would also miss offensive/defensive lineman Rhakeem James.
But the Red Devils will not be starting over next season. Russell said the coaching staff has been grooming players to step in at every practice.
“We practice two groups all year long,” Russell said.
“We’ve got some younger kids and they’ve watched and they’ve learned and some of them have played a lot. It was good for them to see the program and the offensive and defensive schemes that we brought in. We can only get better.”
The Red Devils will start from a good spot with the return of D’Vone McClure next season. McClure is a threat at receiver of when carrying the ball.
“He’s a good football player who wants to win and is very competitive,” Russell said.
Just as important, Jacksonville will return some experience to the offensive line. James Reddick, Carter Grandison and Tyler Skeet will be back throwing blocks next season.
“We’ve got three guys who played every snap every night,” Russell said.
Jacarius Jordan is expected to lead the secondary next year along with Kevin Richardson and Demeris Williams will return to anchor the defensive line.
“We’ve got some guys that have some good experience,” Russell said. “We’re excited about where we finished this year and where we’re going.”