Tuesday, September 06, 2011

SPORTS >> National power coming to Panther Stadium

Leader sports writers

Sometimes sarcasm can be a good indicator of how heavily something weighs on a person’s mind.

In the case of Cabot coach Mike Malham, as he prepares his Panthers to face a blistering Pulaski Academy team this week, there was plenty of sarcasm to go around in a Tuesday afternoon interview.

“There’s not much to talk about,” Malham said. “What do you want to talk about – the six D1 guys they have?”

The Bruins have nine starters back on offense from last year’s 4A state runner-up team, including senior quarterback Fredi Knighten. As a junior last year, Knighten caught the attention of college scouts nation wide with both his passing efficiency and ability to scramble on broken plays. He went 277 of 439 for 4,318 yards and 54 passing touchdowns while running for eight more touchdowns and picking up almost 900 more yards on the ground.

Among Knighten’s wide list of talented targets is junior wideout Hunter Henry, who also has heavy interest from SEC college programs.

In all, there are four Bruin seniors who are on the list for class of 2012’s Top 50 recruits. Plus there are two Bruin juniors on the class of 2013’s Top 25 national recruits.

Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley downplays the attention that so many of his players are getting.

“We promote our kids trying to get them looks from colleges and find them places to play and get good scholarships,” Kelley said. “Sometimes the media catches on to that. We’ve got some kids that can really play, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of other schools do too that maybe just haven’t had the same exposure our guys have.”

The Bruins proved worthy of their national ranking and overall No. 4 ranking statewide last week when they punished Central Arkansas Christian 54-14 in one of the four Kickoff Classic games at War Memorial Stadium. Kelley, however, wasn’t entirely pleased.

“We made a lot of mistakes,” Kelley said. “I think you could take any play, and find someone that did something wrong. We’ve definitely got a lot we can improve.”

Malham mostly notices the talent when he looks at Pulaski Academy game film.

“They’re a talented team,” Malham said.“We definitely have our work cut out for us. They’ve got some good receivers, and they’ve got some speed. Hopefully we grew up some from last Tuesday.”

The Panthers came on strong late in last week’s 34-13 victory over rival Jacksonville, but suffered some collateral damage in the process. Sophomore safety Jordan Burke suffered an ankle injury and defensive tackle Kyle Sturgeon went out with a knee injury. Burke has already undergone surgery for the ankle in question after a previous dustup while Sturgeon was waiting for surgery to correct a torn ACL when he went down against the Red Devils last Tuesday. Malham does not expect either to be back this season.

“We already have eight new guys as it is,” Malham said. “There’s a lot of inexperience out there, and it’s a little bit different when you’re out there with the stands packed.”

Malham’s assessment of last week’s game against Jacksonville was that the defense played better as the game went on, and was happy with the ball movement on the offensive side.

He did say there were plenty of opportunities to clean up the knack for turnovers and penalties that plagued the Panthers in the first half. But when it comes to Pulaski Academy, Malham said he believes it is a good test for his young team before the start of their 7A-Central Conference schedule, a schedule that includes heavyweights like Conway, Little Rock Catholic and North Little Rock, all highly-ranked teams.

“Just look at our schedule – every week is a test,” Malham said. “We go from this to Har-Ber, then Conway. Then we’ve got No. 5 North Little Rock and then Catholic after that. So, I don’t know if you call it our biggest test, it’s just like another week in 7A football for us.

“One thing about it is, by the time we get through with our non-conference schedule, we shouldn’t be in awe of anything.”

While Pulaski Academy and its six Top 50 recruits will be the clear favorite this week, Kelley still sees a formidable foe in the Panthers, especially playing a style of ball his squad is not used to seeing.

“It’s beneficial to play them because they play such good technique, good responsibility, you have to be disciplined to beat Cabot,” Kelley said. “They come off the line so low, you can’t take a break. If just one stands up, he’s going to get driven back into the next level, and it’s just a domino effect.”

The Bruins are always efficient offensively, with one of the best scores-per-possession ratios in the state, but that will be a focal point for Kelley’s bunch this week. “It has to be,” Kelley said. “Last year we averaged 15 or 16 possessions per game. Against Cabot, we had nine. So we have to get as much out of those possessions as we can because they’re going to do whatever they can to keep us from having the ball.”