Bryant Coach Buck James didn’t know what he was getting into with his Salt Bowl debut last fall. “I think I went in blindfolded,” James said. “There are so many media obligations and pep rallies. The hype of the game and promoting it is mind-boggling. I don’t know what high school wouldn’t want to be a part of it for the first game of the year.”
Beating Benton 10-7 on a game-saving tackle was just one of many highlights in James first season in Bryant. The year ended with the Hornets making a deep playoff run into the semifinals against North Little Rock.
As James prepares for his second season, he has a good group of returning players who understand his system and the expectations. Because of last year’s run, at least one media outlet is picking Bryant as high as No. 2 in the Class 7A preseason poll.
“I think it is good to have high expectations early in the year,” James said. “It gives you a sense of urgency as you are preparing in the summer. No football team gets there on just talent. Our guys worked hard to get to that level. We feel like we are going to have a chance again this year, and are way ahead of where were last year at this time. We are just going to hope that we are playing Thanksgiving weekend. If you can do that, you have had a great season.”
Bryant’s defensive unit set the tone in the opener and picked up the slack early as the offense found its way. James expects that defense, with seven returning starters, to be one of the more dominant units in the state.
Cameron Vail (4.7 speed) is one of the more athletic and versatile players in 7A. Vail, who has been offered a scholarship from Air Force Academy, leads the defense at safety. Vail, who had 55 tackles and two interceptions last fall, will also see time punting, returning kicks and playing Wildcat quarterback and receiver.
Mike Jones earned all-conference honors at the other safety. He racked up 46 tackles and two picks.
“Those guys are both three-year starters, great in the classroom and can help us on offense,” James said. “They are just dependable.”
Junior Andrew Hayes (36 tackles and two interceptions) started every game at cornerback last year. Seniors Antonio Rice and Rondell Messer man the opposite side with Messer seeing some time at safety.
Junior Jakob Neel returns at middle linebacker where he recorded 115 tackles, including 10 for loss, last fall. Senior Nic Smith has settled in at inside linebacker. Antonio Todd (81 tackles and three sacks last year) and senior Brooks Ellis will play on the outside. Senior Cazzie Pirngle (300-pound bench press) and Jake Wright will also see time.
The defensive line is anchored by 6’3”, 300-pound Kajuan Robinson. Robinson, a junior basketball player, recorded 40 tackles in his first season playing football. Senior tackle Bryce Thomas and junior Josh Salguero both bench press more than 300 pounds and make the interior formidable.
A host of “long, athletic ends” are contending for time including senior Conner Davis, senior Nate Wallace, and junior Johnny Wallace. Austin Bailey and Cantrell Wallace add depth at end.
Junior quarterback Ren Hefley leads an experienced offense with a rugged line. Hefley racked up 1,770 yards passing with 12 touchdown and five interceptions. Senior Reed Mobley also competed for time in the spring. Junior Hunter Ulmer and sophomore Jake Meadors add depth.
Senior Kris King saw limited time as a backup at running back last season but could be the featured back this year. Junior Latavian Scott is also competing for snaps. Juniors Braylon Butler and Keethan Hudson will also be in the mix.
Senior C.J. Wallace, who hauled in a critical catch against Cabot last season, returns at slot receiver after missing part of last year with a broken collarbone. Senior Matthew Sandiage impressed coaches in the spring working at receiver.
Senior Luke Curtis caught 16 passes for 152 yards at tight end last year. James said he already has four college scholarship offers from Division II schools.
James said the line was the weakness last season. This year it will be the strength. Senior left tackle Zak Kemp (400-pound power clean) started every game at left tackle last year and is a college prospect. Senior Preston Kyzer went from 215 pounds to 280 in the offseason and moves from center to left guard.
Senior Logan Burton started the first two games of 2016 before injuring his knee. James said he could play center or guard. He has packed on 55 pounds on his 6-3 frame in the offseason. Junior Blaise Smith moved from the defensive line to right tackle last year. Senior Joseph Wyllia started every game at tackle last year but moves to guard this year. Junior Clay McElyea had a good spring at guard and seeks time. Junior Josh Stevens started five games at center in 2016 and looks to contribute there this season.