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Jones assesses spring game and gives early outlook for 2014
One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2014 season will be rebuilding a defense that lost a lot of seniors to graduation, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. Shown here, members of the White squad run through their paces in pre-game drills. The Bulldogs open the regular season at Springdale on September 5th. (Photo courtesy of Sabastian Neece and the Greenwood Dog Pound)

Jones assesses spring game and gives early outlook for 2014

By Richard White

The Greenwood Bulldogs concluded their allotted spring drills last week with the annual Blue-White game at Smith-Robinson Stadium. They are coming off a playoff lost to Pine Bluff last November, ending their historic 50-game winning streak that spanned almost four full seasons. The loss also ended a string of consecutive state championships that stretched from 2010-12.

“I try not to think about it more than 10 times a day,” said GHS head coach Rick Jones in an earlier interview with Leland Barclay of the Southwest Times Record. “There’s about six plays that if they would have gone the other way, we wouldn’t have lost,” said the coach. The Bulldogs had an 11-point second half lead, but lost the game on a field goal as time expired, 37-34.

But that was then, and another season is now less than three months away. During spring practice the Bulldogs were mainly looking to fill some big holes on defense after losing a number of starters to graduation. They must also choose a new quarterback to lead Greenwood’s prolific offense. Following last week’s Blue-White game, Coach Jones offered his assessment of the team’s progress and its needs as they move through the summer months toward pre-season drills in August.

Korban Waldemar (6-0, 286) is returning and represents the bulk of experience along the line on defense, along with fellow senior Gavin Heller (6-1, 225) and junior Gunner White (5-9, 235). But the entire secondary graduated, which poses the biggest challenge for the Greenwood coaching staff.

“It’s the most obvious,” said Jones of the vacancies in the defensive backfield. “The secondary is wide open, but we lost some guys up front too. Except for Korban, we don’t have a lot of experience up there. So we’ve got to find some defensive guys. We’ve got to have some guys that can run and want to tackle people. If we use our receivers to play in the secondary, we’ll be okay, but we won’t be as good at wide receiver,” said the coach. “So we really need to find more receivers or more secondary guys.”

Returning juniors Grant Morgan and Jordan Green started at linebacker last fall, which is the most experienced defensive unit the Bulldogs have coming back this year. “We have several linebackers that played quit a bit, with Grant, Jordan, and some of those guys,” said the coach. “They still need to get better, but we have experience at linebacker, so the guys in the middle are going to be alright, but the guys up front and behind, that’s where we have to find some players.”

Offensively, senior Reid Wheeler and sophomore Luke Hales are taking the majority of snaps at quarterback, with senior Kyler Watson seemingly slotted for a reserve role. “Quarterback is going to be okay,” Jones said. “They are both competing hard for the job, and they are both doing some good things, and there are things they need to do better.”

Wheeler threw for 726 yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception last year, winning both games he started, filling in for the injured Jabe Burgess. While Hales (6-2, 220) has the size and arm strength and is projected as the quarterback of the future, that game experience gives Wheeler the early edge at the position, said Jones.

“No doubt,” said the coach. “To have a guy come off the bench and win two games is huge. He played well. The guys around him played well too, but he did his job. We beat Sallisaw and Catholic, and I thought Catholic had a real good football game. But we played really well against them on the road.”

I think they both did a pretty good job,” said Jones in assessing his quarterback play in the spring game. “I’m not a big stat guy, but statistically they were very similar. They’re going to battle for the spot and get an even number of reps. Reid has a leg up, but Luke is a really talented kid. The biggest deal is how do you move the football team? It’s not necessarily the fastest, biggest, strongest guy; it’s the guy that gets the job done. Part of it is that our offensive line is pretty good and we should be really good at wide receiver. Your weapons are always a big part of your success at quarterback,” said the coach, who expressed confidence in whichever player eventually wins the starting job. “The quarterbacks usually make that call themselves,” he said.

Waldemar and senior Jacob McOlvin (6-1, 258) will help anchor the offensive line, and there is a capable crop of receivers, led by the coach’s son, senior Kevin Jones. “The receivers are doing well,” said the elder Jones. “I’m really happy with them. It seems like every day a receiver comes out and makes a play that hasn’t been making plays. It’s good to see that. We think there are probably six or eight guys that can be quality receivers for us. We have some depth at that position.”

It’s much the same at running back, said the coach. “We have a lot of guys that are fighting it out. There’s about 10 guys and I’d say that six of them have a legitimate chance. The thing is that none of them are big kids. They’re all smaller guys, quicker guys. They have some similarities, but some of them catch the ball better out of the backfield, and some of them block a little better. There’s not really one of those guys that has every single attribute you’re looking for. As a group it might be one of those situations where we just play a fresh running back and let them go. But I think we’re going to be okay. There are four or five guys that have a chance.

Jones also talked in depth about his plans and goals for the spring game. “What we do in the spring game is different than what other people do,” he said. “Those guys have been divided up since the middle of March in White and Blue, and we’ve done everything against each other. So when we start the game we go White one against Blue one, and White two against Blue two, and White three against Blue three. And for the entire first half we just rotate. And in the second half, when we run the clock, we basically go with just the twos and threes.”

“Part of the reason is that we have 102 kids. We have a lot of kids we want to get in the game. So the main thing we’re trying to do is get everybody on film to watch and see how they are doing. The main thing is to get the guys a lot of reps. We play every kid as much as we can in that amount of time. Our so-called first group has an opportunity to see how they stack up against the other first group, and it keeps the mismatches from happening.”

Jones admitted that the score in the spring game means little to him. “I honestly don’t have any clue what the score was. I didn’t pay any attention. It was just a matter of having a good competitive atmosphere so we could evaluate our kids. You want to get looks, you want to get reps, but with as little chance of injury as possible. So we are highly selective on when we go full speed. You’ve got to do it, but we really try to be [careful] in how we do it, so we can practice hard, practice fast, but do it as safely as possible.”

“If you roll the dice and tackle to the ground a lot, you’re going to raise your chances of getting some people hurt. You take a risk every time you go out there, but we try to be as prudent as we can, because our better players, we need them. It’s not an easy thing. You don’t want to have a soft football team that’s not very tough, because you can’t win being soft. You’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be hard, but you’ve got to figure out ways to teach that without knocking people’s heads off all the time. I want to avoid that as often as I possibly can. It’s a fine line you have to walk.

Asked about overall team speed this year, Jones said, “We’ve never been known as an overall speed team. The real key for us is that we want to be fast in the fourth quarter. That’s a pretty good test of speed, and I think that’s about the best we can hope for.”

Concerning the sophomore class that has only lost one game the past two seasons as 8th and 9th graders, Jones expects to get some immediate help from them. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We’re going to get some help from that group. That’s a really good group of kids. There are some linemen in there. There are some skill guys in there. It depends a lot on how quickly they make the adjustment to high school football. But we’re going to need some of those guys, there’s no doubt about it. We’re going to need some guys to step up, we’re just not sure who they are yet.”

The Bulldogs have also had a number of players move into the district during the course of the just completed school year. “We’ve had some guys come in that I think at some point might be able to help us,” explained Jones. “Jackson Gregory moved in from Tennessee. He’s going to be a sophomore. Jake Freeman (senior) moved in from Van Buren. Paul Johnson (sophomore) moved in from Indiana. Parker Hollinsaid (sophomore) moved in from Wisconsin. But it’s a huge jump from where they came from, because we just do things so fast. It’s hard to get caught up. We’re trying to get those guys acclimated, but we’re sure glad they are here,” said the coach.

But coming out of the spring game, the overriding concern for Jones and his staff is the defense. “Obviously we’ve got to shore things up defensively,” he said, “because that was a scorefest. Our tackling was poor. The angles were poor. Our fundamentals were poor. But a lot of that you can trace back to the fact that we’re not going do a lot of full speed stuff in the spring.”

The Bulldogs will get a chance to measure themselves against other teams this week when they go to a team camp at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia on Wednesday. There will be some limitations to protect players from injury, but it will allow the coaching staff to better evaluate their players against live competition from other schools.

Finally, Jones acknowledged that every member of his staff is coming back for next season, at least so far. “I hope we get to keep them. We’ve got a great staff of guys. We’re very fortunate, but things change fast in this business. Ultimately, you’ve got to take care of yourself and do what’s best for you and your family. If our guys get an opportunity they can’t turn down, then we’ve got to live with the results.”

 

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