Benton ran out of time during the 2016 Salt Bowl. The Panthers advanced a pass down to the Bryant 10-yard line as the clock ran out on a 10-7 defeat.
Benton bounced back, though, under first-year Coach Brad Harris winning six of its next seven games and advancing to the state semifinals losing to eventual 6A state champion Russellville. The Panthers lost to the Cyclones twice and also fell to 6A runners-up Greenwood.
“I like having a game like that Week 1 instead of in the middle of the season,” Harris said. “If it’s during the middle of the season you could be flat the game before and after. We came up 10 yards short and played well defensively. Offensively, there were some things we didn’t do quite as well, and we were young up front, and it showed.
“We got on a roll after that and really improved. We had an excellent year and a not a lot of people expected that. We overachieved.”
Benton enters the 2017 Salt Bowl confident with a mixture of experienced veterans and talented young players.
“We feel like we have a solid team this year,” Harris said. “Last year, we were inexperienced at a lot of positions. This year we like our junior and sophomore classes. We have a quality senior class with some returning starters at key positions, and we have depth.”
Harris may use two quarterbacks going into the season as junior Colen Morrow and sophomore Peyton Hudgins are locked in a battle. Morrow completed 28 of 35 passes for 286 yards in limited action in 2016. Hudgins passed for nearly 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 in leading the junior high squad to an 8-2 record a year ago.
“They are ‘1A ‘and ‘1B’ right now,” Harris said. “I feel like we have two great quarterbacks. Peyton is a dual threat and a little more explosive and does a good job reading the option.”
Junior Zak Wallace managed to run for more than 600 yards as the backup to Brandon Connor, who ran for more than 1,500 yards in 2016. Senior Antonio Fuller adds depth after missing some of the last season with an ACL tear. Central Arkansas Christian transfer Kyvin Carroll, a junior, will play linebacker primarily but will also see time in the backfield.
Senior Clayton Martens returns at receiver where he grabbed 22 catches for 211 yards in 2016. Junior Michael Allison also returns at receiver after total 156 yards receiving last fall. Junior Braden Hendrix should see time in the slot after a reserve role last fall. Junior Payton Pallette, who also plays baseball, and sophomore Braxton Slaughter, who impressed this summer, add depth.
The offensive line is anchored by two seniors. Beau Belcher moved from the defensive line to guard. “He moves well and is very strong,” Harris said. Classmate Jared Hastings moves from left tackle to left guard. “Those seniors will lead the way, and we just should look the part and be big up front.
Junior Jenson White, 6’3”, 280lbs, lines up at left tackle and junior James Durling, 6’3”, 290lbs is at right tackle. Junior Josh George mans the center position. Juniors Henry Hicks and Josh Doyle worked on the line in the spring, and big sophomores Austin Jones and Jackson Shelton add depth.
Defensively, the line is athletic with 6’5”, 235-pound senior end Blake Edwards patrolling. Edwards, who is getting attention from Davison II college coaches, racked up 45 tackles last fall. “He had a strong year as a junior. That should set up a big year for him this year,” Harris said. Junior Ty Neathery mans the other end after collecting 12 tackles at linebacker last season.
A host of players worked at nose guard, including Belcher, who had 27 tackles last year. Senior Seth Manion and juniors Dylan Ferguson and Michael Duke add depth on the line.
Seniors Brock Morris (330-pound bench press and 280-pound power clean, and Bryson Krebs step into the linebacker spots after playing in reserve roles last fall. “We are hoping both of those guys can fill those roles and have big years for us,” Harris said.
Carroll “brings an element we need speed-wise,” Harris said of the CAC transfer. Junior Cameron Ross also “looked good’ at the strong side linebacker spot in the spring.
Junior Caleb Easterling, who didn’t play last fall, and sophomores Bryce Golleher and Sean Thornton also worked at linebacker.
Senior Beau Brewer racked up 80 tackles at safety in 2016. Senior Blake Smith mans the other safety spot.
Senior cornerback DJ Sturgis (4.5 speed) is one of the faster Panthers. He is attracting college attention after he intercepted two passes and totaled 33 tackles a year ago. “I look for him to have a breakout year,” Harris said.
Senior Tristan Hutchinson rotated at corner last fall and locked down a spot in the spring. “He has made great improvement from last season,” Harris said.