Davidson steps in for Easterling as Hornets try to knock off unbeaten Cabot

Junior Blake Davidson will be under center for the Hornets tonight against Cabot. (Photo by Rick Nation)By Rob Patrick

Bryant Hornets senior quarterback Jimi Easterling was looking forward to getting to play against the Cabot Panthers. Sure, he knows what kind of challenge it would be. After all, the Panthers are unbeaten this season and ranked as high as No. 1 in the state by some. They lead the 7A-Central Conference with a 4-0 mark and the Hornets, at 3-1, have a chance to pull into a first-place tie with a win.

It’s just that Easterling didn’t get to play much against them last season. He started the game and, on the Hornets’ opening drive, he'd led his team on a march from its own 20 to a first-and-goal at the Cabot 8. On second and goal, Easterling suffered a leg injury that not only kept him out of the rest of the game but ended his season.

The Hornets never got that close to the goal line again and Cabot went on to win 14-0.

Easterling spent long hours rehabbing and has come back this season with a fine effort, completing 61 of 104 passes (57 percent) for 844 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s also netted 69 yards rushing on 24 carries.

And he’s been looking forward to trying it again against Cabot.

But it won’t happen.[more]

Sometime during the second half of Bryant’s 31-14 win at Conway last Friday, Easterling suffered a concussion. Mostly as a precaution, he will be withheld from the game against Cabot.

Blake Davidson, who subbed in for Easterling last year, will get the start. The difference this time will be that Davidson, a sophomore thrown into the fire last year, has been getting all the first-team reps during this week’s preparations. He’s also logged plenty of game time in the Hornets’ early-season blowouts. In a couple of games, in fact, he played more than Easterling.

The Hornets did get good news when they found out that senior left tackle Kaleb Burns could play. Held out for the first couple of days of the week after suffering a knee injury against Conway, Burns was cleared to practice on Wednesday and will be in his usual spot.

Like Easterling, a lot of Davidson’s job will be trying to keep the Cabot defense honest as, with all the other defenses Bryant has faced, it focuses on stopping running back Chris Rycraw who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the second year a row with his 245-yard production at Conway. Unofficially, Rycraw now has 2,648 yards in his career as he closes in on Matt White’s school record of 2,866.

The other challenge will be to have the ball enough to run a few plays. Last year, the Hornets managed just 49 snaps against the ball-hogging Cabot offense. By comparison, the Hornets ran 79 against Conway last week, 63 in their loss the previous week to Russellville.

You could say, the Panthers’ dead-T offense is so old it’s a novelty.

“They’re going to grind it out, they’re going to go for it on fourth down, they’re going to keep the ball away from us, they’re going to swap ends of the field to keep us at a disadvantage most of the time in field position,” related Hornets coach Paul Calley. “The ability of our offense to drive the ball and put points on the board when we have it is going to be the difference in the game. We’re not going to get many possessions.

“We have to change the way we prepare,” he said of his defense regarding the Cabot offense. “Not a lot of pass scale this week and a lot of extra reps for our defensive ends and defensive tackles.”

The Hornets have, in fact, fared about as well as anyone slowing down the vaunted Cabot ground game. Last year, the Panthers didn’t really move the sticks much until they completed a few passes. They needed four completions during their first touchdown drive, four more during their second including a 35-yard completion that converted a third-and-18 situation.

That quarterback, Seth Bloomberg, is back this season along with a number of three-year starters including fullback Michael James and, on defense, twins Powell and Joe Bryant in the secondary, noseman T.J. Bertrand and linebacker Spencer Neumann.

“The kids have been playing good,” stated Cabot head coach Mike Malham. “We’ve done what it took to get the wins and, of course, we’re sitting good but Bryant’s right there. Bryant slipped up one time and if we slip up (against the Hornets), it’s a logjam. We’d be sitting with one loss, Bryant would have one loss, Russellville and North Little Rock have one loss. It’s a big game. If we’re lucky enough to win it, we’ll be in real good shape.

“We just want to play good and give ourselves a chance,” he added.

“Bryant has what I feel like is the best running back in the state,” Malham said. “Rycraw is a great running back and, obviously, they’re going to give it to him about 30 times. Stopping him is going to be a big, big test for our defense. I don’t know if anybody can stop him but maybe we can slow him down a little bit.

“They’ve got some good receivers, they’ve got a good passing game to go along with it,” he continued. “They’re averaging over 30 points a game. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Cabot, in the meantime, is allowing about 6 points a game.

“Bryant’s coaching staff does about as good a job as any in our conference,” Malham stated. “They’re kids play hard and they’re well coached. They’re just tough to beat. We’ve beaten them just once in the last three years and really hadn’t put many points on the board.”

Malham pointed to the team’s experience as one of its biggest assets. He noted that James has only been back from a pair of injuries (a separated shoulder and a high ankle sprain) the last week or two but has been ably replaced by junior Spencer Smith, who has averaged around 100 yards per game.

The Panthers won the conference last season but got upended in the playoffs by Springdale Har-Ber.

“We actually had more depth last year,” Malham said. “We had some good seniors to go with a good junior class. This year, we’re not as deep. But it’s a good crew and we’ve got lofty goals but they’re the same goals Bryant has, to win a conference championship and a State championship.”

With the rains on Thursday, there’s little doubt the game will be played in a quagmire at Bryant Stadium. Cabot usually plays on artificial turf but the Panthers’ grind-it-out style may benefit from the lack of traction. However, a slick football may also become a factor with all of their quick handoffs, fakes and pitches.

For Bryant on the other hand, the cutting ability so crucial to Rycraw’s success may be hindered as it was earlier in the season against Russellville. But even with that, he went over 100 yards. It was actually field position and two big plays that decided that contest and the same may be the case this week, one way or the other.


Unofficial through 7 games

BRYANT 100 80 37 20 — 237

Opponents 23 7 27 28 — 85

Team stats


First down 128 72

Rushes-yds 262-1,551 234-977

Passing 67-119-2 53-115-3

Passing yds 986 531

Fumbles-lost 11-3 14-5

Penalties yds 37-285 51-386


Rushing: Rycraw 156-1,093, J.Jones 34-222, Powell 25-61, Easterling 24-69, Freshour 2-20, Tolbert 1-15, Harris 1-11, Garland 2-54, Reed 3-4, Arnold 5-2, Winfrey 1-2, Davidson 2-(-8), Pritchett 2-(-9), Cross 2-(-14).

Passing (C-A-I-Y): Easterling 61-104-2-844 (10 TD), Davidson 6-14-0-142 (1 TD), Rycraw 0-1-0-0.

Receiving: Parish 26-417, Garland 11-184, Rycraw 9-80, Winfrey 4-112, Nichols 3-43, Powell 2-34, Arnold 2-27, J.Hampton 2-23, Butler 2-12, Harris 2-10, Reed 1-10, Garrett 1-8, Heil 1-6.

Scoring: Rycraw 72 (11 td-r, 1 td-p), Parish 47 (7 td-rec. 5 xtra-pt.), Denker 36 (5 fg {40, 22, 42, 26, 42}, 21 xtra-pt.), Jones 18 (3 td-r), Garland 18 (1 ko-ret., 1 td-r., 1 td-rec.), Bullock 6 (1 int. ret.), Butler 6 (1 td-int. ret.), Easterling 6 (1 td-r), Harris 6 (1 td-rec), Powell 6 (1 td-rec), Tolbert 6 (1 ko-ret), Winfrey 6 (1 td-rec.), J.Hampton 2 (1 conv.-pass).

Tackles: Sowell 54, Butler 41, Mayall 40, Bullock 38, Oxner 36, Heil 33, Hampton 32, Cox 29, Watson 29, Chavis 28, Tolbert 24, Grimmett 21, Maxwell 18, Jones 18, Wise 11, Garland 9, Chapdelaine 4.

Tackles for losses: Heil 4, Maxwell 3, Grimmett 3, Chavis 3, Jones 2, Hampton 2, Tolbert 2, Mayall 1, Bullock 1, Chapdelaine 1, Smith 1, Sowell 1, Oxner 1.

Sacks: Cox 4, Mayall 3, Heil 3, Maxwell 2, Hampton 1, Grimmett 1, Bullock 1.

Special team tackles: Chavis 7, Sowell 6, Wise 5, Butler 4, Watson 4, Tolbert 4, Cox 3, Glasper 3, Winfrey 1, Perlson 1, Smith 1, Clements 1, Seal 1, Freshour 1, Oxner 1.

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