The gauntlet is run, but there’s no room for relaxation for the Jacksonville Red Devils. The team has faced the 5A Central’s top three preseason teams in a row the last three weeks, and now gets ready to host North Pulaski in the hometown rivalry game – a game that will almost certainly end the playoff hopes of the loser.
Each team enters the game with less-than-impressive 1-6 records, and both teams are 1-3 in conference play and mixed up in a three-way tie for fifth place in the conference.
Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham, however, thinks both teams are better than their records indicate.
“They have some good players and at times have looked like a quality football team,” said Hickingbotham. “And I know those kids will be extremely excited. They’ll bring another level and we’re going to have to try to match it.
Jacksonville has some players nursing some injuries. Seniors Zac Watkins and Keilen Richardson will know Thursday if they’re able to play on Friday. North Pulaski has no new injuries, but will still be without running back Kalise Vines and lineman Tracy Reed. Lineman Keaton Nichols should return for Friday’s game.
Both teams suffered blowout losses last week to the two teams leading the conference, Jacksonville losing 55-7 at Pulaski Academy and North Pulaski falling 56-6 at Sylvan Hills.
Despite the bad loss and record, Hickingbotham likes the way his team has responded.
“I think North Pulaski is a little bit better than their record shows, and I think that’s how we are,” Hickingbotham said. “We don’t practice like a 1-6 team. Monday the kids started a little slow, but we got a spark and took off from there. We (the coaches) were talking about the character of these kids after practice. They were getting after it and that says a lot about their character compared to what it’s been in the past – because I’ve seen it the other way.”
The Red Devils will get back to trying to re-establish their run game, but has to improve its blocking in order to do so. After good showings in close losses to Beebe and Sylvan Hills, the Red Devils produced very little offense against Pulaski Academy.
“We made some progress blocking and then it seemed like we went backwards,” Hickingbotham said. “That’s frustrating and that’s what we’re talking about this week. We’re going back to the details. We have to tackle better, wrap up when tackling, and take the right steps when blocking people.”
North Pulaski has struggled to get its offense going in many games, but has shown good defense at times. The Falcons’ linebackers are a particular concern for Hickingbotham.
“Number 40 (Brady Rhodes) is definitely a guy we’ve got to be looking for and knowing where he’s at all times. He’ll hit you. You put him beside 24 (Kilian Oelrich) and they’ll smack you. Forty reminds me of that safety from Benton we played. He’s just always around the football.
“We’ve shown the kids film and I think they realize this is a football team with some quality players and the ability to play better than they have so far. We expect to get their best and we have to be ready for it. We can’t afford to lose another one and expect to make the playoffs.”