Usually, with the Cabot Panthers football team, you know what you’re going to get. They’re going to line up with tight splits on the offense line with a dead-T full-house backfield, pressed tightly behind that line, a quarterback that will handoff, fake handoff and execute his own running fake to make you feel like you have to tackle everybody then sort through to find out who actually had the ball. On defense, they’ll be sound, not particularly flashy, but physical and aggressive.
And this year is no different in that regard for the Bryant Hornets who renew their oldest rivalry — dating back to 1953 — for Homecoming 2016 tonight.
But, all that being said, there is actually something about the Panthers that is unknown. Will star quarterback Jarrod Barnes play?
Barnes, who boasts 4.37 speed, is one of those guys that can run for 100 yards and pass for 100 yards in any given game. His athleticism is such that he’s been recruited — and he verbally committed — by the Arkansas Razorbacks without a specified position.
He gives the pound-it-out Panthers’ offense a dynamism that it rarely includes.
Barnes didn’t play last week and the Panthers held on for a 20-17 win over Little Rock Central. He injured his ankle the previous week returning the second-half kickoff against Conway. Though he tried to continue, the game got out of hand and his ankle was on ice before the game was over. Conway wound up winning, 37-14. It was the Wampus Cats’ first win of the season and the Panthers’ first loss.
Of course, the Hornets have to prepare as if Barnes is good to go. He’s just too big a factor if he’s in there.
Otherwise, this year’s Panthers are a version that includes, as always, large offensive linemen. But the backs aren’t big. At 5-11, 170, Barnes is bigger than any of them. Braxton Burton is listed at 5-3, 136. Austin Morse is 5-6, 156, Adam Flores is 5-7, 174, Collin Thames is 5-6, 153 — you get the idea. They’re the perfect size for running in behind the big guys and getting lost in the pile and, from time to time, popping out the other side for big gains.
“They’re a good football team with or without (Barnes),” said Hornets head coach Buck James. “They’re well-coached by a Hall of Fame head coach (Mike Malham) who’s about to reach 300 wins. They have a system that everyone plays from seventh to 12th grade.”
Bryant, meanwhile, enters the game on a three-game roll. Last week, they stunned the Southside Mavericks in Fort Smith, 43-19. It was the third week in row the Hornets had scored more than 40 points after scoring just 44 total over their first four games combined.
They’ve been balanced on offense, rushing this season for 1,117 yards and passing for 1,015 yards.
The Hornets have a three-headed quarterback. Sophomore Ren Hefley now starts. Senior Beaux Bonvillain does relief work and senior Reece Coates, who leads the team with 24 receptions as a receiver, runs the short-yardage offense out of the ‘Wildcat’. A stable of backs see action but it’s all started to gel with the development of the offensive line that now includes enough players who have seen playing time that o-line coach Shane Clancy can plug someone in where somebody else isn’t having a good night.
Defensively, the Hornets have limited teams to around 100 yards on the ground on average this season. The Panthers, it figures, will be their sternest test in that regard.
The emergence of sophomore linebacker Jakob Neel, the improved play of linebackers Nathan Mayes and Antonio Todd, added depth in the defensive line and solid secondary play has augmented an already strong defense featuring seniors Hayden Knowles and Madre Dixon up front, senior linebacker Marvin Moody, and junior safety Cameron Vail.
Kicker Hayden Ray gives the Hornets a weapon on special teams but Bryant continues to work on locking down kick and punt coverage, which has lapsed at times.
James said that his team was playing for a conference championship tonight and, if they win, they’ll be playing for a conference championship again next week (at North Little Rock). Both the Hornets and Panthers are 3-1 in league play. Fort Smith Northside and North Little Rock, who also tangle tonight, are each 4-0.