Last year’s Salt Bowl rivalry game between Benton and Bryant was one of the most anticipated in the series in recent memory. Early on, it didn’t disappoint as a defensive struggle ensued and Bryant led 28-14 early in the third quarter. Then, a chain of events set off a security scare and the stadium was evacuated as a precaution.
A year later, Bryant is coming off its first Class 7A state championship and Benton is the reigning Class 6A runner-up. Both teams are ranked in the Top 5 in preseason polls and the hype is once again at an all-time level.
“We haven’t talked a lot about [last year’s abbreviated game], but last year we did talk about the finish and were disappointed we only basically played a half,” Benton Coach Brad Harris said. “We put it to bed last year, and didn’t talk about it much after that and focused on each game.
“As it gets closer, our kids will be excited. It’s a great atmosphere, and we will look forward to another great matchup. We are excited about the opportunity, and the community is excited. Last year is behind us and everybody is going to come out and be there, and we are going to be ready to play.”
Senior Peyton Hudgins (5-11, 180) is hoping his final year will be the one he lives up to the high expectations that awaited him when he arrived to battle for the quarterback spot as a sophomore. Two broken collarbones before each of the past two seasons have put a damper on his career so far. His elusiveness in the pocket has excited Harris since he entered the program. “He is a dual threat with his arm and legs and can really hurt a defense,” he said.
Junior Garrett Brown (6-0, 180) was pressed into action last fall when Colen Morrow, who replaced Hudgins, was lost for the season. Brown didn’t disappoint racking up more than 2,000 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions. However, Brown missed spring practice with a knee injury. He only became cleared to join organized team activities in early July. “He is a typical pocket passer with a big arm, and he has grown some,” Harris said.
If Brown wins the job, Hudgins, standout centerfielder on the baseball team with 4.5 speed, will shift to receiver and will have his own package of situational plays to run under center.
After spelling star running back Zak Wallace last season, senior D’Anthony Harper (5-8, 200) is the Panthers’ featured back. Last fall, he ran for 844 yards and 11 touchdowns. Harper (310-pound bench press, 500-pound squat, and 300-pound power clean) packed 20 pounds on his frame in the offseason.
All-state senior Gavin Wells (5-8, 165) can play three offensive positions. When injuries decimated the QB spot two years ago, Wells filled in admirably. Harris will also line him up at running back on occasion, but receiver is where he is the most natural fit. Last fall, he led the Panthers with 57 catches for more than 600 yards and six touchdowns. Wells (4.6 speed, 285-pound bench press and 275-pound power clean) looks to increase his numbers this season as the Panthers first option.
Classmate Braxton Slaughter (6-0, 200) returns at the outside receiver as well as filling in at H-back and tight end. Harris is hopeful the big target (285-pound bench press and 275-pound power clean) can “step up big and help us.”
Harris had high hopes for speedy senior Jaden Nash (5-11, 170) heading into last season, but Nash missed his junior campaign with a torn hamstring. Nash impressed in the spring and has the potential “to take a short pass and score with his elusiveness,” Harris said. Classmate Braden Murdock (6-2, 170) competed in spring drills after missing last season with a broken collarbone. He gives the Panthers a steady possession option with his big frame and sure hands.
Sophomores Andre Lane (5-9, 180) and Cameron Harris (6-3, 170) could see snaps in the rotation. Lane led the junior high receiving corps in catches and receiving yards last fall. Harris missed last season with a torn meniscus.
Benton returns only one player from one of the better line corps in the state last fall. Senior Austin Jones (6-2, 280) started at left guard in 2018 but moves to left tackle this season to anchor the inexperienced group. “He is one of the best linemen we have had in recent years, and that includes Josh George who is now [a freshman tackle at the University of Central Arkansas].” Jones squats 480 pounds, bench presses 290 pounds and power cleans 285 pounds.
Classmate Tristan Redd (5-11, 255) saw snaps as a reserve in 2018 and claimed the left guard job in the spring.
Junior Coby Reeves (5-11, 270) worked at center in the spring. Classmate Jesse Taylor (5-10, 270) impressed in the weight room in the offseason by increasing his bench press to 300 pounds and his power clean to 290 pounds. He could play right guard or tackle. Senior Adam Sowell (6-4, 320) trained at right tackle in the spring.
Junior Kyree Watkins was a 6-foot, 240-pound running back a year ago but coaches determined he needed more speed to play in the backfield, so he added 40 pounds in the offseason and became a lineman working at right guard and tackle. Harris said Watkins will also see snaps on the defensive line.
Senior soccer player Zach Hardister (6-0, 170) will compete for the kicking job with junior Bryan Araujo (6-0, 180), who is recovering from meniscus surgery following the soccer season.
Harris calls junior returning punter Chris Barker (6-0, 185) “a good athlete” who runs the 400-meter hurdles on the track team and can also play receiver. Harris said Barker can punt traditionally or with the rugby-style technique.
Senior noseguard Kris Wright (5-11, 275) anchors the defensive line inside and Harris expects big things from him after a productive offseason that produced a 325-pound bench press and 300-pound power clean.
Senior Caleb Coffman (6-0, 255) moves from the offensive line to defensive end. Coffman bench presses 325 pounds and “moves well,” Harris said. Junior Justin Walker (6-0, 265) is penciled in at the other defensive end after impressing in the spring. Senior Colin Yandell (6-0, 235) played linebacker last season but after a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury limited his mobility, he worked at end in the spring as did junior Hayden Purdy (6-3, 215).
Senior middle linebacker Bryce Golleher (5-9, 215) led the team with 74 tackles in 2018. “He is one of our team leaders verbally, and he is such a tough and physical player with his low center of gravity,” Harris said.
Classmate Trae Maxwell (6-0, 230) moves from end to linebacker where Harris hopes he will be comfortable standing up and utilizing his 4.7 speed. Junior Gavin Davis (5-9, 220) impressed in the spring and is looking to secure a starting job after rotating as a sophomore.
Senior Sean Thornton (5-10, 210) racked up 20 tackles in four quarters of the Bryant and Arkadelphia games before his season ended with a broken leg in the third quarter against the Badgers. Thornton’s leg is healed, but a car accident in the offseason has left him with a small fracture in his back, and his status this summer has been questionable.
Standout senior baseball player Jaden Woolbright (6-1, 190) didn’t play football last year but returned to the team in the spring and transitions from end to linebacker. The secondary is full of fresh faces after four seniors departed last year’s squad. Senior Cade Clark (5-9, 175) rotated at cornerback last fall and stood out on the track squad in the spring with a 10.55-second 100-meter dash time.
Junior Trevor Standridge (5-8, 170) asked if he could move from offense to cornerback, where he made strides in the spring. Standridge (4.7 speed) played in the secondary in junior high.
Seniors Monterio Mack (5-8, 155) and Austin Drewry (5-9, 165) also competed for cornerback snaps in a battle that raged in the spring and will continue into fall camp.
Senior free safety Dylan Burnham (6-0, 170) recorded more than 60 tackles at linebacker last fall and will be a “field general” in the secondary. Sophomore Cain Simmons (5-8, 160) showed off his tackling ability in the spring and is penciled in at the starting strong safety spot.