So, your football team is picked to win the conference in the pre-season polls and ranked No. 2 in Class 7A before a single snap. And it’s a year after folks were wondering if you could win more than two or three games.
That’s what happens when you exceed expectations so spectacularly. With nearly an entirely new coaching staff implementing different ideas in 2016, the Bryant Hornets went on a tear and wound up reaching the semifinals in the playoffs for the first time in the history of the program.
And, sure enough, in the annual Hooten’s Arkansas Football publication, the coaches of the 7A-Central Conference voted the Hornets as pre-season favorites and they’re ranked No. 2 in Class 7A behind the Springdale Har-Ber Wildcats, the very team they defeated to reach the semifinals in 2016.
“We’re still not where we want to be by any means,” stated Bryant head coach Buck James following his team’s first practice of the Fall on Monday. “We’re highly ranked in a lot of the polls and stuff and that’s good. But I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s all just.
“I think there’s a big separation between where we were last year and where North Little Rock was, and if we’ve closed that gap or not, time will tell,” he continued. “And there was a big gap between us and Fayetteville. A big gap between us and (Fort Smith) Northside. Our goal this summer was to close that gap. Time will tell whether we have or not.
“All the prognosticators have deemed that we maybe have, but we’ve still got to go out on the field — that’s what I told our team last week, all this stuff is paper. The games are going to have to be played and, at the end of the day, it’s going to be a battle of attrition, a battle of what we did to prepare ourselves for what we’re trying to do. Then hopefully all the pieces fit together and we can win some games.
“The analogy I use is deer hunting,” the coach related. “It’s a lot different when you’re standing up there with that rifle in the stand and shooting at that deer. But when the deer has a gun and knows you’re sitting there, you might not want to go deer hunting as fast.
“We’re not going to be the hunter anymore. We’re going to be the hunted. So, everybody we play, it will be a big game for them. They’re circling that game because we’re up there at the top in the conference and in the top two in the state. People expect that if you’re going to make your name, you’re going to make it with this team first. It’s going to be a whole different ball of wax for our football team, for our football program.”
With that said, James asserted, “I believe we’ll be extremely competitive. I think we’ll play real hard. I think we’ll be fun to watch. And I think we’ll carry our pads well. People will be surprised how quick and how big and how strong that these guys have gotten and how much they’ve changed their bodies.
“We’ve got to have some breaks, some luck and we’ve got to have some guys step up,” he noted. “I like where our team is. I think we’re going to be better. Is that going to be better than last year record-wise? I can’t tell you. It’ll be entirely up to how much competition we have. But we will be better at everything we do.”
That process has been on-going this summer.
“Where we started from and where we’re at now is total daylight to dark difference,” James stated. “With the coaching changes, we lost Coach (Robert) Hooks so we lost our offensive coordinator and we lost our receiver coach. That had to take a little bit of time. Losing Coach (Joe) Teague, we lost our special teams coach and we lost a guy that helped with our receivers and running backs. That’s a big part of our offense.
“With Coach (Kirk) Bock taking over as our offensive coordinator then hiring Coach (Terrence) Heaggens and Coach (Adam) Pendergrass, we really started at ground zero because I let Coach Bock call it and do it how he wants to do it. Obviously, that’s going to be different in terminology and new things. So, we really humped it this summer to make sure we got where our defense is now. We’re not there yet but we’re 10 times further along than we were this time last year.
“I feel like it’s just a matter of getting out there in pads and doing it,” he explained. “That’s the only thing we’re lacking now but, from the standpoint of what we want to do schematically and how we want to call it, we’ve pretty much got 98 percent of it all there. We’ve got some jumbo packages and things like that, that we probably want to put in during the year but we can go play a football game and be as good or better as what we would’ve had a chance to be if we hadn’t had a coaching change.”
Turning to the other side of the ball where the staff remains defensive coordinator and secondary coach Darrell Burnett, linebackers coach Travis Queck and d-line coach Brad Stroud, James said, “We’re light years ahead of where we were last year at this time. Those guys, they keep growing. I think we can be better that what we were. We’ve just got some spots where guys are going to have to rise up to the occasion and answer the bells on some things. Losing Marvin Moody, losing Hayden Knowles, losing Collin Welch, losing Nathan Mayes and losing Madre Dixon — those guys are going to be hard to replace. But that’s what you have when you have a good program and we try to build a good program. You try to replace those main cogs like that. You have other guys step up and be ready to go.
“We think we’re there, a lot of it,” he said. “In some places we’ll be better. We’ll be better on the inside part of the defensive line. We should be. They’re back. The middle linebackers are back, both of them. Our secondary’s back for the most part, other than losing Collin. But Darrell played so many guys back there. So, we should be better straight up the middle than we were last year. We’ve got some depth in some spots there. We’re excited about where we can get to defensively. We’ve just got to stay healthy.”
Regarding the summer work schedule, the coach related, “Our goal this year was to try to get the gap closed between our youngers guys and our older guys. If you want to say 1’s and 2’s, 3’s and 4’s, or whatever. We use Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.
“We did three team camps and we took every kid,” he mentioned. “We had JV team camps, JV passing league. We were in a passing league over at North Little Rock then we did some 7-on-7 with our JV too. We sort of rotated it around, tried to get as many kids as many reps as we could possibly get. I venture to say, there’s not another football program in the state that got more kids more reps. Now, is it enough? No. But we did what we could to try to get everybody to learn their craft.
“We went to Dallas (for a 7-on-7). We did Shootout of the South. I think we did four 7-on-7’s and we fared well in all of them. We had one here that Malvern had when their new turf got put out. We played our varsity in the morning because they were going to Dallas and we played our JV — really, our 3’s and 4’s, our really young guys. They made it to the finals, got beat on the last play of the game.”
As for the start of Fall practice, it’s a far cry from the days when it marked the start of serious workouts with so much done during the summer now.
“But we make a big to-do of it,” James said. “We weigh everybody and we have popsicles and everything, but we’re not doing anything this week that we didn’t do last week or the week before or the week before that. There’s zero difference but it’s all the hype. It’s a precautionary period. What rules are there are for people who don’t do what they’re supposed to do. That’s what rules are for.
“That’s why we insist on our kids being here and being consistent (during the summer),” he explained, “because if they are gone for a long period of time and they try to come out here with a bunch of guys that have been doing it all summer long then — it’s a safety factor too. Trying to get kids to be acclimated to what we’re trying to do. We actually have to dial it back. The next two days for sure. We’ll start progressing again on Wednesday and we won’t look back.”
Wednesday is the first day that teams can practice in pads. The Hornets will practice the rest of this week from 7 to 10 a.m. They’ll scrimmage this Saturday starting at 9 a.m.
“It’s going to be real quick, ‘til about 10:30,” said James. “We’re going to try to get about every kid about 40 to 50 reps at the most.”
Practice will be in the mornings on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 7-8, then in the afternoon due to Professional Development on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, Aug. 11, the Hornets will be back at work in the morning then the school schedule will begin as classes start on Monday, Aug. 14.
“We’ll dodge most of the heat then we’ll come out here when school starts and the first day it’ll be 150 (degrees) and we’ll have to put the pieces together,” James predicted from experience. “It is what it is.”
In conclusion, the coach said, “I really enjoy this group of guys. We took them down to Dallas and they’re first class in everything they do. They understand the process. They understand what we’re trying to do. Our kids see what they’re doing. They’re better. They’re bigger. They’re stronger. They’re faster. They’re more equipped to go out there and compete at this level.”
The annual Blue-White scrimmage featuring the football program from eighth through 12th grade will scrimmage briefly at the Blue-White on Friday, Aug. 18, starting at 6 p.m. The Hornets host a pre-season benefit scrimmage against Pulaski Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 22, at 6 p.m. The season officially kicks off with the annual Salt Bowl against Benton on Saturday, Sept. 2, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
2017 Football schedule
Aug. 18 — Blue-White scrimmage, 6 p.m.
Aug. 22 — Pulaski Academy (Benefit), 6 p.m.
Sept. 2 — Benton (Salt Bowl at War Memorial Stadium, LR), 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 — at Fayetteville, 7 p.m.
Sept. 15 — Lake Hamilton, 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 — at Fort Smith Northside, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 — Little Rock Catholic, 7 p.m.
Oct. 6 — at Little Rock Central, 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 — Fort Smith Southside, 7 p.m.
Oct. 20 — at Cabot, 7 p.m.
Oct. 27 — North Little Rock, 7 p.m.
Nov. 3 — at Conway, 7 p.m.