Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> The second season for Jacksonville

Leader sports editor

The second season within a season begins this week for the Jacksonville football team. First-year coach Barry Hickingbotham has said all along that he’s breaking this season up into three parts, and while the first part didn’t go as well as hoped, it’s time to move forward as the Red Devils host J. A. Fair to open conference play at 7 p.m. Friday at Jan Crow Stadium.

The War Eagles are a team with problems similar to Jacksonville’s so far this season. Both teams are 0-3, both have a first-year coach and both are struggling to maintain consistency on offense.

The two teams have similar strengths, too. Both are capable of, and have shown, an ability to hit the big play. That’s the key concern for Hickingbotham as he gets the team prepared for Friday’s matchup.

“They have a very athletic quarterback,” Hickingbotham said. “The thing that scares you about Fair is their speed. They have the kind of athletes that can turn a broken play into a touchdown. They can run right, and you can have everybody there. Then they reverse field, fumble the ball, pick it up and score.”

Jacksonville hasn’t been able to get much offense going in any of its three games. The first half of the first game was the best for offensive output by the Red Devils.

They went scoreless over the next eight quarters before hitting one of those big plays early in the second half last week against Little Rock Christian Academy. Later, Jacksonville scored when kicker John Herrmann booted a 47-yard field goal.

The production in that half gives the Red Devils something to build from as conference play approaches.

“They came out and we had a good practice on Monday,” Hickingbotham said. “I think they’re understanding what we’re trying to do here and that the first season is behind us. We would like to have won a game or two, but we competed to the end last Friday and I was proud of the effort. Now we move forward.”

One of the things that the Jacksonville coaches did during those first three games was play lots of linemen in many different positions on both sides of the ball. They will begin to narrow that down and put the units in place as they’re best suited, but several people will still fill the roles.

“I’m sure we’ll have to rotate because we have to play guys on both sides of the football,” Hickingbotham said. “But we have to get us a rotation down. It made it a little harder having three starters out last week. It handcuffed us a little bit.”

Two of those starters, Keith Pervall and Courtland McDonald, play on the line. McDonald was not injured, but suspended for a game per Arkansas Activities Association rules after being ejected in the previous game. Pervall is day-to-day, as is starting tailback Lamont Gause.

“Pervall is one of only two linemen we have that played last year,” Hickingbotham said. “He’s vital for us up front and losing him is a big hole to fill. But we put kids in that spot that played as hard as they can play and I was proud of them.

“Gause practiced some Monday and looked OK – a little tender. We don’t want to be too quick with them. Not to take anything away from Fair, but we’re fixing to hit murderers row in our conference and we’ll need them and everyone else we’ve got to compete in those games.”

After Fair, Jacksonville plays the three teams picked to finish at the top of the league in preseason, Beebe, Sylvan Hills then Pulaski Academy. So while Devil coaches will be careful with injured players, they’re not looking past the challenge that’s ahead of them this week.

“They’re a first-year staff just like us and they’re having their own growing pains,” Hickingbotham said. “But coach Shelton is an experienced head coach and he’s going to get them going in the right direction just like we’re trying to do. We’ve got some things to work on, like staying connected on a block a little longer, routes being more crisp. We’re not pleased because we’re not winning, but we’re starting to see a little bit of hope of understanding the concepts and grasping what we’re trying to teach.”