Bryant Coach Buck James knows he has an abundance of talent on his football team. The problem is evaluating that talent and formulating a depth chart at each position.
The Hornets, who are riding an 18-game winning streak, are gunning for a third straight Class 7A State Championship. Holes need to be filled from last year’s talented, undefeated team and James had planned on finding candidates to fill those spots during the spring and summer. COVID-19 put an end to that with an 11-week hiatus. The Hornets began individual summer workouts June 1, but per Governor Asa Hutchinson’s mandate still weren’t able to have contact drills into July.
“We haven’t run a football play since the State Championship game last December,” James said. “It’s hard to evaluate kids when you can’t see them play.”
James and his staff have spent the summer running 155 players through conditioning workouts ensuring the players are in shape once the clearance for full contact comes. Several different groups begin showing up for workouts at 5:30 a.m. and rotate through to help with social distancing until 11 a.m.
“We gave them workouts to do during the 11 weeks, and some were able to do them and some weren’t,” James said. “When they came back, it was like the old days of two-a-days. It was rough. Even for the guys who had done some things, it was tough.”
James is hopeful once full practice begins he can blend a group of 45 seniors, some of whom were starters and rotated in the lineup, with a sophomore class that went undefeated in junior high in 2019.
“We have a lot of very talented young guys who could be key contributors on Friday nights,” James said. “We are known for reloading instead of rebuilding, and that is what every coach wants to happen. We have 50 sophomores who haven’t practiced at the high school level.”
Record-setting all-state senior quarterback Austin Ledbetter (6-2, 200), a University of Arkansas baseball commit, returns with an eye on playing in his third-straight state title game.
“He had the best year of any quarterback in school history,” James said. “He is a smart guy and could start at middle linebacker for us—he’s that type of hard-nosed leader. He has all of the intangibles and is a coach’s dream.”
Junior Carson Burnett (6-1, 175) was the junior varsity starter a year ago and will back up Ledbetter. Sophomore Cory Nichols (5-10, 170) has already caught the attention of some college scouts as a dual-threat QB after dominating in junior high. James said Nichols will most likely see the field this season as a slot receiver.
Last fall, senior running back Tanner Anderson (5-10, 205) shared carries with former Hornet running back Ahmad Adams, who signed with Arkansas State. In 2020, a faster Anderson will be the Hornets’ featured back.
“He is poised for a heck of a year,” James said. “He runs with an attitude, and he is one of the better running backs in the state. He can line up in the slot and runs well in space. He’s got a great work ethic, and he is just set up for a good year.”
Classmate Xavier Foote (5-9, 205) showed his explosiveness last season even with limited touches. “When he ran the ball, he always ran tough with good vision, and he catches the ball well. He brings a lot to the backfield. He allows us to move Tanner to wide receiver if we want to.”
Senior transfer Jamuarien Bracy (6-3, 220) only makes the Bryant backfield deeper. Bracy, the son of former Arkansas State star running back Shemar Bracy, has starred at Rison High School the past two seasons before transferring to Bryant. Bracy (4.6 speed) could also play linebacker, James added.
“All three could be as good as anyone we have had since I have been here, much less in school history, and that is saying a mouthful,” James said. “All three could be the bell cow.”
The receiving corps boasts experience and talent.
Senior Hayden Schrader (6-2, 195) racked up more than 60 catches and 1,000 yards in 2019. Schrader is versatile enough to line up at receiver or tight end.
“He is a hard worker and has changed his body since last year, getting faster,” James said. “He is a key cog in everything we do from the passing game to running with his blocking ability.”
Senior Braden Robinson (6-1, 190) will also see snaps at tight end and H-back after working at linebacker. James said Robinson is also a special teams standout.
James is looking for three-year starter River Gregory (5-8, 155) to break out this season. James said Gregory is capable of filling the role departed senior Jake Meaders filled as one of the team’s go-to options last year.
“He is a fearless guy with tremendous speed who can really run,” James said. “We need him to step up and be the player we know he can be.”
Senior Joe Young (6-0, 185) is one of the faster Hornets with 4.5 speed and owns big-play capability with a 23-yard per catch average in 2019.
Senior Clay Curtis (6-3, 170) brings versatility to the group with his height, which allows him to play tight end. “He can play all four positions and catches the ball extremely well.”
Last year at this time, James was trying to fill offensive line spots. Two sophomores, Will Diggins (6-5, 270) and Brooks Edmonson (6-5, 275), stepped up as starting tackles. After taking time to adjust to the 7A trenches, the duo became a force.
“They got their butts torn up, but by the end of the year they were wearing everyone out,” James said. “They passed the test and did a great job. We expect a lot out of them this year as juniors.” James said both juniors are NCAA Division I prospects.
Senior center Jack Powell (6-1, 245) started three games last fall, including a playoff win against Fayetteville.
“He is a good leverage guy and has a knack for being between his guy and the ball carrier. He has really worked hard on getting bigger and stronger. He will really be a good player for us.”
Senior kicker Brock Funk (5-10, 170) has come a long way since he reported as a ninth grader weighing 110 pounds.
Funk broke a school record for extra-points made last season and only missed two tries. James is confident in Funk’s range from 50 yards and in and is very pleased with his kickoffs that allowed a vicious cover team to smother opponents.
“He works as hard as any of our offensive or defensive linemen in the weight room and put on 60 pounds,” James said. “He is one of our MVPS with how he can put kickoffs where we need them and our confidence in him—we know anytime we pass the 40 we are in range.”
The defense set the tone for the team a season ago, but this year’s unit includes many unproved players.
Senior Rodricho Martin (6-3, 235) started every game at end last season and James expects him to be the leader of the unit. “He is a hard worker who played well for us last year,” James said.
Senior Brayden Godwin (6-2, 230) moved from linebacker to end last season and took to it “like a fish to water.” Godwin gained weight in the offseason and James said he “has a chance to be an every-snap starter” opposite of Martin.
Senior Jimyle Harris (6-0, 290) saw significant snaps inside last season and could start in 2020. “He’s a big body and brings a lot of energy and ferocity. He is one of our run stoppers.”
Senior Malachi Carey (6-1, 230) tore the ACL in his knee as a sophomore and spent his junior season attempting to recover. James is impressed with his athleticism.
Senior Myles Aldridge (6-2, 240) leads the linebacker corps. James said Aldridge (4.5 speed) “runs like a wideout” but is physical enough to play at either of the defensive line positions, and will fill the middle linebacker spot this season. Aldridge has several NCAA Division II scholarship offers but James is convinced he is “a big-time Division I football player.”
Senior Kevin Taylor (5-9, 175) is a standout wrestler and his ability to fill in during passing situations is invaluable on the outside.
Senior Austin Schroeder (5-11, 170) moved from backup quarterback to the secondary and was a constant at free safety for the Hornets. “He is a good tackler, and he is always doing what he is supposed to do and being where he is supposed to be. He is a great leader.”
Senior Noah Davis (5-5, 150) started two games at defensive back before he broke his leg a year ago. James admires his toughness and said he can play linebacker but will be on the field somewhere.
Senior Kyle Knox (6-0, 182) has started on and off since he was a sophomore at safety and linebacker. He could find a home at cornerback this season. Knox has received several NCAA DII offers.
Laquav Brumfield (6-2, 175) impresses James with his “Division I ability,” but the coach would like to see the talented Brumfield bring more consistency to his cornerback reps.