Tuesday, June 16, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Three Devils’ second chance

Leader sports editor

National signing day is long gone and most college football teams got their signing classes in order weeks, if not months ago. But a trio of 2015 Jacksonville graduates were just recently added to college rosters. Defensive tackle Anthony Fields, running back Lamont Gause and linebacker Justin Abbott each got on with different teams.


Fields signed with junior college powerhouse Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. Gause will join the Arkansas Tech Wonderboys in Russellville as an invited walk-on, and Abbott signed with Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia.

Fields, who has a DI-level combination of size and speed, garnered interest from, but was eventually passed on, by the larger schools because lackluster performance in the classroom left him short of the top level’s requirements.

After a breakout sophomore season on the defensive line, Fields found himself ineligible his junior season because of grades. He worked over the second semester and in summer school to get the GPA back up, and regained his eligibility for his senior year.

Fields admits it was just laziness that caused the grades to drop, but thinks the experience will help him in college.

“I just slacked off,” said Fields. “I can’t blame anyone but myself. I had to ask if I really wanted this to happen for me. I know how fast it can be taken away, now. I’m blessed to have another opportunity and I mean to make the most of it. It’s just a matter of putting in the work.”

Fields said getting his academic eligibility back was the easy part. By the time he returned to the field, there was a new head coach and new defensive coordinator, and an all new focus and regiment on strength and conditioning.

“It was harder getting back in physical shape than it was getting my grades up,” Fields said. “The grades were just a matter of applying myself. Those workouts over the summer were hard.”

Trinity Valley is a mainstay at the top of the junior college rankings, and finished last season ranked No. 2 after going 12-0 and winning the Heart of Texas Bowl, the championship game of the Southwest Junior College regional playoffs.

The school places several players in major colleges, largely because of getting players like Fields, who received interest from those schools out of high school but were not academically eligible.

Fields is a powerful 6-0, 286 pounds, and runs a 4.87 40-yard dash. While a major force defensively, he says the highlight of his high school career came on offense.

Playing crosstown rival North Pulaski, Fields closed the first half of that game with a 76-yard touchdown on a hook and lateral. He took the lateral at about the 30-yard line near the Jacksonville sideline. He plowed over one would-be tackler, cut back to the middle of the field and outran the rest of the defense to the end zone.

Fields said the play was a reward from coach Barry Hickingbotham for making sacrifices for the team.

“I had never played offensive line before and I didn’t really know how to do it,” Fields said. “I didn’t like it because I didn’t know what I was doing, but coach said he needed me to make that sacrifice for the team. We worked on that play in practice that way and I told him before the game, if he called it, I would score. He said he would do it for making that sacrifice. And really, that was about the last game I played offensive line. I was just defense after that. He just needed me to do it until they could get someone else ready.”


Gause is a two-time 1,000 yard back and All-State honoree. He is super quick and uncommonly strong for his size, which is what ultimately caused most schools to back off making scholarship offers. Gause is 5-7, 178 pounds and runs a 4.47 40-yard dash. He made several big plays, scored 22 touchdowns and even had one quarter against Beebe in which he had four carries for 119 yards and one touchdown, as well as a 59-yard touchdown reception called back for holding.

But Gause says the highlight of his senior year took place before the first snap of the season.

“My senior year, there were a whole lot of good things that people didn’t see,” Gause said. “As players we got better, and as people we got better in who we are off the field.”

The team went to a week-long retreat to Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, staying in the school dorms abandoned by college students for the summer. Upon arrival, coaches collected everyone’s cell phones as they exited the bus.

“We were all surprised when we found out we were going to Walnut Ridge,” Gause said. “We were like, ‘what’s Walnut Ridge?’ We got there and had to hand over our phones, and were like, ‘What?’ Nobody liked getting up at 6:00 in the morning, or 5:00 in the morning. By day three we were all hanging out with people we didn’t really know before, and by the time camp was over, everything was different. We were a team.”

The season didn’t start out very well at all, Jacksonville lost its first four games of the season and was 1-6 overall and 1-3 in conference play with three games remaining. The Red Devils then won their last three games to finish 4-3 in league play and make the playoffs.

But the team never looked like a 0-4 or 1-6 team in practice, and Gause goes back to preseason to explain it.

“Walnut Ridge was preparation for that,” Gause said. “One of our goals was to be able to face adversity. That was our adversity and we took it as a challenge that we weren’t down and out yet.”

Gause’s new adversity lies in the fact that he was overlooked by almost everyone. He was originally going to join Fields at Trinity Valley, until he found out they didn’t want him as a running back.

Believing in himself, Gause turned down the scholarship, and will walk-on at ATU hoping for the opportunity to prove himself as an effective ball carrier.

“I just have to prove something to get from one place to another,” Gause said. “I want to play running back, and I’m going to make something known that should’ve been known.”


Abbott, like Gause, was a three-year starter in the program and huge help for Hickingbotham in his first season. Abbott led the Red Devils in tackling the last two years at inside linebacker, and was the team’s strongest player. He boasted a 500-pound squat, 300-plus bench press and a 280-power cling. But his biggest asset, according to Hickingbotham, was his intelligence and experience.

“Without our lack of experience on defense when I got here, he was like a coach on the field for us,” said Hickingbotham. “He was a good classroom kid, carried about a 3.0, got his work done on the ACT. He was the kind of guy with enough football in him, he could take things he would see on the field and give us coaches his ideas. He could get guys lined up in the right spots and make adjustments on the field. He was just a huge factor for us in leading by example and helping get the younger guys up to speed. He led in all phases.”

Height was a key factor in schools not offering Abbott (5-11, 210) and Gause, but Hickingbotham takes some of the responsibility.

“Being our first year, we didn’t really know the process for getting these guys some exposure,” Hickingbotham said. “I don’t know how much was done before we got here, but we were a little late in the game in getting these guys’ names out and in the coaches’ minds. We’re just thankful to (SAU) coach (Bill) Keopple for listening to us. They had signed their linebacker prospect, but we told him he could also play fullback. He’s just a motivated football player and has the want-to to be successful. He’s going to be coachable and he’s going to do whatever you ask. And he’s going to make plays for you because he’s going to do whatever it takes. And if he doesn’t make the play, it won’t be from a lack of effort.”