“I’ve been in this situation three other times,” said Bryant Hornets head coach Buck James, reflecting on his team following up its first State championship as they begin full-tilt fall workouts leading up to the 2019 season. “It’s not anything we can’t do.
“The thing I’ve never done is go back-to-back and there’s a reason for that too,” he added. “We’ve got to change a little bit of what we do and how we do it, and give ourselves an opportunity to be able to be that successful. We’ve got a good football team coming back and we need to prepare like we’ve got a good football team. For some reason, everybody’s picked us either 1 or 2 in the state. Obviously, they think there’s something here because we don’t pick ourselves. We’ll have to find out about ourselves.”
The Hornets have been practicing in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts this week but will going full pads Saturday with a light scrimmage.
“We’ll just be bumping,” James said. “We’re not as concerned right now with tackling to the ground. We want to run the ball in traffic and catch the ball in traffic.”
Next week, with the start of school, practice will intensify in preparation for a pre-season scrimmage against Pulaski Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 20, and the season-opener against Benton in the Salt Bowl on Aug. 30.
Reflecting on the team’s summer work, James said, “I thought we had a good summer. I would say 95 percent of our kids did exactly what they were supposed to do which nowadays and times, is probably unheard of, especially the style that we do it and the time we do it and all that. We don’t do it when it’s convenient to get here. We do it at 6 a.m. We just did it three days a week and I thought our kids did a tremendous job of being on time, doing their work, getting better.
“We had a good summer in 7-on-7,” he added. “We only lost two games the whole summer (both on the second day of a national tournament in North Carolina).
“Not that any of that matters. But it matters that we went out there and competed with everybody else. It doesn’t translate to the football field but the mentality transfers to the football field. They got a chance to compete a little bit.”
The Hornets appear to be well-stocked at the skill positions on offense and in their back seven on defense. The retooling is happening on both lines.
“We lost four on offense and three on defense,” James acknowledged. “We’ve got some holes to fill. But we’re in a situation in our program that it should be next man up. It should be the next guy.
“In a day and time when most kids don’t want to wait their turn; they don’t play because they can’t see themselves starting before their senior year, we have guys who are seniors who’ve got a chance to start and it’ll be the first time they’ve started. They’ve stuck it out and they’ve endured.
“My mentality about it is they should be the next guy to do that job like it’s supposed to be done,” he continued. “They’ve got the size. They’ve got the strength. They’ve got the knowledge.”
It’s there that James went into preachin’ mode, as if he was giving those guys a motivational talk.
“The thing they’ve got to do is go out there and have the fortitude to do it and win on plays and not just try to go out there and say, ‘Here I am. This is my time,’ and expect it to happen. It’s got to happen through hard work and perseverance, knowing your craft and doing the things it takes for you to be successful. That’s what we’re telling them every day. You’ve got to work like a champion. You’ve got to practice like a champion. You’ve got to have the mindset of a champion.
“The rest of it’s up to them,” he related. “We’re going to get them in a position to be successful. That’s all we can do as coaches, motivate them, try to have expectations, and have them reach the bar.”
And how have they responded so far?
“For the most part, we’ve been about 50-50,” he answered. “We’ve got some guys that are content to be where they’re at instead of trying to get where they need to be. They’re starting to see it. As you get closer to game time, you start seeing a sense of urgency. You start seeing guys that are going to work a little harder, practice a little harder, care a little bit more.
“That’s the enemy of being great, you know? Just wanting to be good,” he continued. “We’ve got to learn that. That’s what our big sermon was (Wednesday), trying to be great at what you do and not wait until it’s too late to do it. If they wait to try to be good on Aug. 30, it’s going to be too late. That stuff started in January if not before then.”
There are several players returning that played key roles in the State title run. On offense, guys like lineman Tanner Wilson, wideouts Jake Meaders and Hayden Schrader, quarterback Austin Ledbetter and running back Ahmad Adams. On defense, the likes of defensive end Austin Bailey, defensive tackle Kyle Green, linebackers Daylen Land, Cattrell Wallace and Derrick Rose and Tamaurion Wilson in the secondary.
And, even with those guys and others returning, it’s a different game when you’re the defending champions, the coach asserted. Regarding the players’ response to all of that, he said, “It seems like they’ve kind of looked over their shoulder, thinking where are those guys at? Or, is it really me that’s the guy?
“We have some that have taken the bull by the horns and gone 150 miles an hour and challenged themselves and worked themselves to the point where they can’t fail,” he said. “But then we have some, who have felt their way through it and don’t do what they need to do like they need to do it. They’re still searching for their own identity when their identity is right there in front of them.
“My big thing right now is, you’ve got a chance to get better but you come out here and save yourself to try to make it through practice or you come out here and you’re just hoping to get to play or something, instead of making yourself a player and embracing the moment and the opportunity. I think that’s what we’ve got to do more than anything.
“That’s sort of human nature now,” he reflected. “We want stuff given to us. We’re too busy playing on teams that have just enough players and everybody gets to play, and everybody gets a trophy.
“High school football at the 7A level in Arkansas is very competitive. There’s people who are working at it. And we have a whole different persona about us now. We’re not the guy out there hunting for a championship. We’re out there now to try to defend a state championship. So, the tide’s turned a little bit and we became the hunted.
“We learned a little bit about that in North Carolina,” the coach mentioned. “We were the number one seed coming out of the first day. The second day, they came out after us like a hornets’ nest and we got a different approach toward us.
“I expect that to happen this year,” he noted. “We’ve got the bull’s-eye. It’s different when everybody’s going to give you their best shot and they’re going to play as hard as they can as long as they can ‘til they know it’s just not going to happen. That’s the kind of approach we’ve got to have. We’ve got to go out there and play as hard as we can as long as we can and impose our will on them instead of them imposing their will on us.”