Tuesday, September 09, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> JHS has big challenge

Leader sports editor

Jacksonville suffered a last-second heartbreaker in its opener last week, giving up a field goal with four seconds to play and losing 9-7 to Maumelle. The task at hand is much greater this week, as the Red Devils prepare for their first road game at class 6A Benton.

Jacksonville won the first of four meetings between the two schools, but Benton has won the last three, including a 31-21 victory last year. At the time it seemed like a bad loss, but 31 was the lowest point total of Benton’s six wins last year, and the fourth lowest point total of the entire season.

The Panthers have begun, the last few seasons, to make a name for themselves as an offensive juggernaut, but last week’s 14-14 tie with class 7A rival Bryant indicates they may be coming along defensively as well.

Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham definitely thinks so, and knows his team will have to improve at blocking if it wants to better the modicum of success it had last week.

“They just attack, attack attack,” said Hickingbotham about the Benton defense. “We thought Maumelle played an attacking defense, but Benton looks like a different level. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge, but we’re going to gear up and go play hard. We’re working hard this week to get those mistakes corrected and then we’ll get after them on Friday.”

Benton lost a quarterback that came just three yards short of 3,000 yards passing last season, but added one that ran and threw for almost 2,600 in Lincoln transfer Drew Harris. He, however, is playing running back while last year’s backup, Cason Maertens, calls the signals.

The Benton offense may not be as explosive as recent years with dynamic quarterback Tarek Beaugard graduating, but Harris is a playmaker and the defense looked exceptionally good last week.

Hickingbotham was particularly impressed with safety Stone Paul (5-foot-10, 180).

“That safety was everywhere and he’s looking to hit somebody,” Hickingbotham said. “When you got a guy like that back there, it makes you able to gamble more at the line. He’s a good one.”

Paul is a three-year starter who recorded 80 tackles last season and is also the team’s punter.

Jacksonville will try to shore up the breaches in the offensive line, particularly in the passing game. The Red Devils averaged a little more than 2 yards per called pass play last week. Some of that was because Hickingbotham is playing several players at each position looking for the players he can count on once conference begins. So it probably won’t change much this week.

“I’ve said we’re going to play a lot of guys these first three games,” Hickingbotham said. “We’re dividing this season up into three seasons, and this first part is to find where everyone fits best and can help us the most. We’re going to take some lumps and hopefully by that conference opener we’ll be ready to roll.”