Wednesday, November 08, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Benton must have to pay for pressure

Leader sports editor

The rebuilding Jack-sonville Titans have taken the approach this season of one step at a time. They took enough steps to make the playoffs, now they have a chance to take the step of pulling off an upset and making some noise in the Class 6A state tournament.

Jacksonville travels to Benton for a 7 p.m. kickoff on Friday, and head coach Barry Hickingbotham isn’t counting out his team’s possibility of surprising the prognosticators.

“They’re bigger and deeper than we are, but we’ve faced that this year and I like how we’ve stepped up to the challenge,” said Hickingbotham. “I feel like we’ll be ready for that. I’m proud of how our D-line has improved each week. I’ve been proud of our linebackers. I’m not going to say they’re going to try to beat us with the pass, but that’s kind-of been our weakness. But we’re going to get ready and try to get take that next step.”

Benton has been a team that wins with the pass for the last several seasons, but that strategy took a hit when starting quarterback Colen Morrow got hurt in week four, and then sophomore backup Payton Hudgins got hurt in week 7.

Since then, sophomore Gavin Wells moved from wide receiver and has steadily improved. He had his best passing game in last week’s win over Sheridan, completing 16 of 24 attempts for 271 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

“He’s a shifty guy,” Hickingbotham said. “When the quarterback wears number 80, it’s a little bit of a concern. He’s kind of like a little water bug out there. He’s hard to get your hands on. I don’t think he’s got the arm strength like they’re quarterbacks have had in the past, but he’ll throw it. He’s getting better. I still wouldn’t say they’re run heavy, but they’re running it more than they used to, and they’ve got a good back.”

Jacksonville is dealing with its own injury problems at quarterback, as well as on the offensive line. Starting quarterback Harderrious Martin suffered a broken hand at West Memphis. The senior has continued to play defense, and even though the injury is on his non-throwing hand, he can’t grip the ball well enough to be a main ball carrier on offense.

Junior backup Shavarris Curley did a very good job filling in for Martin for most of the game at West Memphis. He also made some plays against Marion, but struggled, as did the rest of the team, in the season finale against conference champion Pine Bluff.

“He’s learning as well,” Hickingbotham said of Curley. “A big problem last week was their defensive line was all over us. We lost our center and we’ve been kind-of beat up up front a lot this season. I don’t know if we’ve had more than two games in a row with the same unit. But we’re going to have to get one ready. They’re going to bring pressure. They play a 3-3 stack and they come after you. So we’re going to have to figure out a way to offset that and then we’re going to have to execute.”

“Malik (Curley) is going to recognize where the pressure is coming from to make his read. We’re working with him on that and he’s picking it up. He’s a hard-working kid. He’s kind-of been thrown in the fire, and he’s stepping up and accepting his role.”