Wednesday, October 09, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Red Devils, Bears facing major tests

Leader sports editor

When the Sylvan Hills Bears host the Jacksonville Red Devils on Friday at Blackwood Field in Sherwood, the game will be between two teams in opposite roles from what most preseason predictions indicated. Sylvan Hills started several sophomores last year and for that reason, was expected to be better this season. Jacksonville, however, was thought to be a legitimate contender to knock Pulaski Academy off its perch and win the 5A Central Conference championship. That goal is still attainable, but not without significant improvement from how it has played so far this season.

Instead, it is Sylvan Hills (4-1, 2-0) that is emerging as a threat to the Bruins, while Jacksonville has struggled to a 2-3, 1-1 record so far.

Bears’ coach Jim Withrow doesn’t believe Jacksonville’s record is indicative of how dan gerous it can be. Factor in last season’s blowout win for the Red Devils, and the head Bear can’t imagine why his team would consider taking Jacksonville lightly.

“Jacksonville beat us pretty good last year,” said Withrow. “They also have a lot of those guys back, and whatever issues they were having early on, it looked like last week they resolved them.”

Jacksonville beat Little Rock McClellan 31-6 last week, debuting on its home field an altered version of the spread offense it ran the first few weeks. Instead of all the multiple four-and-five wide receiver sets and throwing the ball most downs, the Red Devils put sophomore running back Robert Knowlin at quarterback and ran the zone read option much of the time.

“The kid they put in to run the option was pretty good, and I tell you what, that No. 5 is scary,” Withrow said.

Number five for Jacksonville is junior tailback Lamont Gause, who had his best game of the season in last week’s win.

“He’s probably the best one of the bunch, but I’ll tell you something else. They’ve got a lot of guys that you’ve got to tackle,” Withrow said. “They killed us with big plays last year because we didn’t bring them down. You’ve got to tackle those guys or they’re going to go score. We have to tackle better than we did last year.”

Sylvan Hills held on for a 37-36 win over previously undefeated Mills last week. Withrow doesn’t think the game should have been that close, and believes mistakes in that game will have to be cleaned up against the Red Devils.

“Mills is pretty good, but they did score on an interception return and we set them up with a short field a couple of times and made it easier on them than it should have been,” Withrow said. “And Jacksonville, they’ve just got skill people all over the field that can hurt you. We’re getting better, but we’re still pretty young. A lot of them played last year as sophomores, but even this year they still make mistakes. But you can tell as they come along they understand things more and more.”

One of the players that has grown into his position is quarterback Tra Doss. He finished with 176 all-purpose yards last week and has averaged almost 200 yards rushing per game running the spread option. He’s also found a nice target emerging in wide receiver Nathan Thomas.

“Nathan, on his route, reading coverage, knowing when to break things off and when to go deep, he’s just doing some smart things,” Withrow said. “Him and Doss have been on the same page for the most part too.

Doss has been the starting quarterback since midway through last season. Withrow expected him to be better this year, but maybe not as good as he’s been.

“I knew when he was a ninth-grader he was good,” Withrow said. “He’s very intelligent on a lot of things, got a lot of smarts about him. So to that extent he hasn’t surprised me much. To another extent, the numbers he’s putting up are probably a little more than I expected. But hey, he’s absorbing everything we’re giving him. When you’ve got guys that go out there and do what you ask of them, they’ll be successful.”