In the four seasons Coach Brad Harris has been a part of the Benton program, it has ascended to new heights. In his first season as defensive coordinator in 2014, the Panthers earned a trip to the Class 6A state title game. Benton racked up nine wins a year later with eight in his debut as head coach in 2016 and seven last year after only winning a combined thirteen games from 2011-13.
However, the one thing missing from Benton’s resume is a win over county rival Bryant. The two teams tied in 2014, but Benton hasn’t beaten the Hornets since 2005, when they won the Salt Bowl and a playoff game at C.W. Lewis Stadium, the former home of the Panthers.
“Nobody asks me how we are going to be this year, they just ask me how we are going to do against Bryant,” Harris said. “For some of those old-timers, a win in the Salt Bowl would be bigger than a state championship.
“It is a big game for us because our kids know their kids well, being so close. We know we can go on and have a good season if we lose; it is a nonconference game. But I would love to see what it does to our season if we win this game. I think our support would be even better the rest of the season, and the momentum of a win would carry over. It would be a big win.”
Three quarterbacks with experience return for the Panthers, but Harris hopes junior all-conference honoree Gavin Wells can stay at his natural receiver position this year. Wells moved from receiver to quarterback last year when senior Colen Morrow (6’, 160 lbs.) tore his ACL Week 4 against Russellville and was lost for the season. Before the injury, Morrow was 60 of 82 for 733 yards and three touchdowns, and had run for 187 yards.
Junior Payton Hudgins (5’11”, 175 lbs.) broke his collarbone in August but returned to start four games. Hudgins (4.6 speed) passed for 471 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 172 yards and a score. Hudgins amassed 220 total yards and three TDs in a 38-19 win against Texarkana and showed his versatility with a 45-yard touchdown reception in a playoff loss to West Memphis.
Morrow hurt his shoulder during baseball season, so he didn’t go through spring drills or any 7-on-7 work through the dead period in early July. He should be at full strength when practice begins and will battle Hudgins for the starting spot. Harris said if Morrow wins the quarterback job, the athletic Hudgins will move to receiver.
Whoever is under center will have a reliable option to hand the ball. Senior runningback Zak Wallace (6’, 200 lbs.) will start for the second year. Last fall, Wallace enjoyed breakout season rushing for 1,489 yards with 21 touchdowns. He set the tone early with 175 yards, five rushing touchdowns and five catches for 75 yards in a loss to rival Bryant in the season-opening Salt Bowl.
Junior D’Anthony Harper (5’7”, 185 lbs.) saw some time last season at receiver but will relieve Wallace with a change of pace and may appear with him in the backfield at the same time. Harper (450-pound squat, 285-pound bench press, 275-pound power clean) ran for a 12-yard touchdown against Sheridan and caught a 26-yard pass for a score against Jacksonville last fall.
Wells led the Panthers in passing with 907 yards and eight TDs, but Harris said he would only play quarterback this year in an emergency. This will allow him to improve on the 423 yards receiving and three touchdowns he totaled last year. He was also third on the team in rushing with 360 yards and two TDs.
With Wells splitting time at quarterback, senior Michael Allison (6’2”, 170 lbs.) led the Panthers in receiving in 2017 with 507 yards and three touchdowns. Allison (4.7 speed) boasts a 4.0 GPA and a 30 ACT score. He racked up four catches for 58 yards against Greenwood.
Senior Garrett Body (6’, 165 lbs.) will fill an outside receiver spot after moving to Benton from Newport last December. Body caught 21 passes for 236 yards and three TDs for the Greyhounds.
Junior Braxton Slaughter (6’, 180 lbs.) will see more playing time after missing half of last season with multiple injuries. Slaughter has a “tight-end type body” with 4.7 speed.
Harris is excited about the veteran offensive line corps. Senior Josh George (6’3”, 305 lbs.) moved from center to guard because of an injury but returns to center for his final prep season. The studious George (3.5 GPA) “understands blocking schemes” and has caught the eyes of college scouts. Senior Jenson White (6’4”, 295 lbs.) uses his flexibility to stand out at left tackle. Senior right tackle James Durling (6’6”, 300 lbs.) squats 495 pounds and bench-presses 285 pounds. Senior Henry Hicks (5’10”, 251 lbs.), who bench presses 340 pounds and squats 500 pounds, will see time inside. Junior Austin Jones (6’1”, 260 lbs.) is well-versed at all five line positions and bench-presses 330 pounds.
Senior soccer player Garrett Eason (6’, 200 lbs.) looks more like a linebacker than a kicker/punter. Eason (295-pound bench press, 310-pound power clean) picked up the punting duties in the offseason and is at full strength after a soccer injury.
Three seniors return to anchor the defensive line. Robert Lankford (5’10”, 275 lbs.) managed 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the middle last fall. Lankford is a powerhouse, squatting 415 pounds and bench-pressing 385 pounds.
Senior end Ty Neathery (6’2”, 230 lbs.), the son of Benton athletic director and former Coach Scott Neathery, totaled 35 tackles including seven for loss with 4.5 sacks. Neathery (4.7 speed) squats 525 pounds and bench-presses 335 pounds.
Classmate Dylan Ferguson (6’3”, 220 lbs.; 4.8 speed) mans the other end spot. Ferguson missed most of last season with a broken arm.
Junior Traevion Maxwell (6’, 240 lbs.) tries his hand at end after “outgrowing” the runningback position. Classmate Caleb Kauffman (6’1”, 245 lbs.) adds depth on the line.
Senior middle linebacker Kyvin Carroll (5’11”, 230 lbs.) was a welcome addition after transferring from Central Arkansas Christian last fall. Carroll (4.7 speed) racked up more than 80 tackles including 16 tackles for loss last fall. Carroll bench-presses 320 pounds and power cleans 310 pounds. Junior Sean Thornton (5’10”, 200 lbs.) lines up inside after notching 22 tackles in 2017.
Junior Bryce Golleher (5’9”, 220 lbs.) also lines up on the outside. Senior Zach Parker (5’11”, 208 lbs.) “has been a role player at linebacker but will have a chance to start.”
Senior Cam Ross (6’, 215 lbs.) returns at the rover (linebacker/safety hybrid) position. Ross (4.6 speed) racked up 85 tackles and recorded three interceptions including a 27-yard touchdown return against Little Rock Parkview in 2017.
Senior Devin Griffin (5’10”, 160 lbs.; 4.6 speed) is back to full speed after missing most of last year with a broken collarbone. Classmate Kelby Caffrey (5’11”, 175 lbs.) is aggressive at the other corner spot and can play safety in the nickel package. Senior Terry Jones (5’9”, 180 lbs.; 4.6 speed) saw most of his time on the junior varsity squad last season but will contribute at cornerback this fall.
Junior Dylan Burnham (6’, 170 lbs.), Colin Yandell (6’, 210 lbs.) and Carter Hutchinson (6’, 190 lbs.) are versatile and add depth in the secondary. νNate Olson