Editor’s note: This is the last of a series previewing the 2012 Bryant Hornets football team heading into their season-opening game at home against the rival Conway Wampus Cats on Friday, Aug. 31.
By Rob Patrick
In May, in a survey covering the last eight years, maxpreps.com ranked the top 10 most[more] consistent high school football programs in the state. And the Bryant Hornets were seventh. For the entire top 10, go here. (Greenwood was No. 1, Fayetteville No. 2. Bentonville was No. 9.)
A key component — a sometimes under-appreciated component — in the program’s success has been the time and energy spent on producing quality special teams play, punt and kickoff coverage, returns, blocking kicks and kicking well.
Head coach Paul Calley said early this week that the kicking game is not where he’d like it to be at this point.
“We have the personnel to be good on special teams,” he explained. “We just haven’t looked good in any facet of it so far. But it’s hard to practice it and the more live reps that we get during the games, the better we’re going to be.”
There’s a big hole to fill in at least one aspect. Gone is three-year standout Jace Denker who, by the end of his career, was booming kickoff after kickoff into the end zone, making extra points automatic, and connecting on field goals from as far away as 47 yards often in clutch, game-winning situations.
The task of stepping into that role has been passed to senior Josh Lowery with back-up from sophomore Alex Denker, Jace’s younger brother. Senior Ian Shuttleworth, the starting left tackle who may be as big as any punter in the state, returns after averaging 36.5 yards a kick last season. He’ll be backed up by another of Jace’s younger brothers, junior Bryce Denker, a standout on the BHS soccer team and a starting linebacker.
Senior Nate Rutherford will snap for punts again this season. Junior Kurt Calley will snap on placements with junior Austin Vail serving as the holder.
Regarding Lowery and Shuttleworth, Calley said, “Both of them have been inconsistent but I think they’re just settling in. Josh kicked off well the other night in the scrimmage. When he concentrates, he kicks it well. The same thing with Ian, his drops have been bad on his punts. Whenever he hits a bad punt, his drop has been terrible. But when they’re really focused both of them can do the job. It’s just a matter of getting them focused.”
The Hornets blocked three kicks last year. Not bad, but that’s below their usual standard. They’d like to create a little more havoc and a few more opportunities that way in 2012.
The return game appears to be in good hands. On punts, the Bell twins, Aaron and Jalen, will be deplayed.
“Jalen up short, Aaron deep,” Calley said. The former is the Hornets’ starting running back, the latter is the primary cover corner for the defense.
Aaron Bell will also be deep on kickoff returns. He’ll be flanked by sophomores K.J. Hill and Brushawn Hunter. All three returned kicks for touchdowns last season, though both Hill’s and Hunter’s were for the freshman team. Hunter returned a kickoff 93 yards against Conway Blue as well as a punt 69 yards against Conway White. Hill’s TD return of 43 yards came on a punt against Lake Hamilton.
Hornets' fans will remember that Aaron Bell’s 95-yard return was huge, occurring just before halftime against Little Rock Catholic. It snapped a 21-21 tie in a game the Hornets went on to win 45-35.