Benton doesn’t just hope to make deep playoff football runs—they expect it under veteran head coach Brad Harris. Even a young team, who experienced its fair share of injuries, surprised some last season by advancing to the Class 6A state semifinals, losing 31-24 against perennial power Greenwood.
The Panthers, who finished 9-3 a season ago, will have a good chance of playing on Thanksgiving weekend again this season with a core group of key players returning on offense and defense.
While the postseason has gone well for Harris, his teams haven’t won a Salt Bowl in his seven-year tenure. Bryant has won five straight state championships and 53 straight games against in-state opponents. The new twist this season is that Bryant will have first-year head coach Quad Sanders leading the Hornets.
“We start focusing on the Salt Bowl after workouts in January, and even though it hasn’t gone our way, we feel like we have closed the gap,” Harris said. “Our guys are really looking forward to it. We start off the season every year playing the best team in the state, but it’s a challenge our team is excited about.”
Senior Cline Hooten (6-3, 185) became the starter during Week 5 last season, after injuries thrust him into the lineup. Harris started then-junior Gary Rideout (6-0, 175) in the season-opening Salt Bowl game, but he broke his hand against the Hornets. Harris liked both QB’s ability to run and pass, but Hooten was more than serviceable when he took over, winning every game he started except the semifinal game and passing for more than 1,200 yards.
“He did a good job and only threw two or three interceptions,” Harris said. “He is a good student and worked his tail off last year, and he continues to do that this summer. We are really excited about what he has been doing for us.”
Harris said Hooten “will have every chance to win the job” but will be pushed by sophomore phenom Drew Davis (6-2, 175). Davis passed for more than 2,500 yards in junior high last fall and has impressed this summer in 7-on-7 action. Rideout moved to the secondary once his hand healed but could also line up under center in certain situations this fall.
Senior Braylen Russell (6-2, 235) is one of the top running backs in the country, committing to the Arkansas Razorbacks. Even though he battled turf toe and a foot injury last fall, he still managed to run for 1,685 yards. Russell said in the spring he’s fully healed, and offseason workouts have proven that with all his 40-yard dash times under the 4.5-second mark.
Classmate Chris Bernard (5-9, 190) is one of the Panthers’ most versatile players. Bernard (4.5 speed) can line up in the backfield or at receiver and is the team’s punter (39-yard average) and is a starting safety. Harris said occasionally the Panthers will employ a package that includes both backs on the field at the same time.
Junior Maddox Davis (5-10, 160) was supposed to play behind explosive senior Donovan Pearson, who injured his shoulder and hamstring, so Davis (4.6 speed) played a majority of the snaps and racked up more than 800 yards receiving. Classmate Elias Payne (5-8, 160) “is the most explosive kid on the team,” and a three-sport athlete starring on the state championship golf team and baseball squad. Harris said Payne already has a baseball scholarship offer to the University of Central Arkansas. He racked up more than 500 yards receiving and returned two kickoffs and two punts for TDs last fall. He tallied more than 1,200 all-purpose yards.
Junior Bronson Coolis (6-1, 215) transferred in from Magnet Cove in the offseason and fills a tight end/H-back role in the offense. Sophomore Will Carter (5-10, 175) is looking for snaps after totaling more than 1,200 yards receiving as a ninth grader. Classmate Karson Collatt (5-10, 160) injured his ankle in junior high last fall but still managed close to 500 yards receiving, and is battling for playing time.
Benton lost its two top linemen from a year ago in Arkansas State signee Walker Davis and Karter Sanders, who inked with Arkansas-Monticello.
However, Harris is still optimistic this unit can be a good one led by junior right tackle Parker Glaze (6-4, 290), who already has an offer from Memphis with heavy interest from Arkansas State.
Senior guard Tanner Holden (6-1, 275) impresses Harris with his ability to play all five positions as well as with his scholarship (35 ACT score). Classmate Caleb Purdy (6-0, 285) should fill in at center or guard, after missing last season with a torn ACL he sustained during spring practice.
After playing on the junior varsity squad a year ago, junior Jose Ortiz (6-1, 310) is penciled in at right tackle. Classmate Isaiah Gipson (6-2, 255) is the unit’s smallest player, but the “nastiest,” according to Harris. Gipson’s effort firing off the ball and driving through the whistle impresses Harris. Senior Jeter Stringer (6-1, 250) adds depth.
Junior Garrett Honeycutt, a soccer player, was the backup kicker last season who managed to drill a 42-yard field goal early in the season, will not be challenged for the kicking duties this season, Harris said.
The line enjoys the leadership of standout senior strongside end Peyton McNeely (6-2, 250), who committed to Harding University in June.
Junior Mason Lassiter (6-0, 230) missed time last fall due to a broken hand but should see significant snaps at end, along with classmate Owen Seals (6-0, 220).
Classmate Ian Alvarez (6-3, 255) saw time at end last season, but after gaining 30 pounds in the offseason may move to nose guard. Another defensive lineman, Daniel Jordan (6-0, 300) will also play nose guard.
Seniors Jordan Burr (5-10, 225), who has battled injuries during his varsity career, and Josh Guerrieri add depth to the line.
Senior Chase Harding (6-1, 240) anchors a strong and athletic linebacking corps. Harding (92 tackles last fall) could move to defensive end if depth doesn’t materialize. Harding bench presses 355 pounds and power cleans 325 pounds.
Harris calls junior Walter Hicks (6-0, 215) “one of the better linebackers I’ve coached.” He led the team in tackles with 126 stops last fall. Hicks bench presses 355 pounds and power cleans 315 pounds. “He will play Division I football somewhere,” Harris said. “He’s very explosive.”
Senior Jake Herbner (5-8, 185) has played nose guard and is strong, as he won the 180-pound-and-below weight class at the state weightlifting meet in the spring. He bench presses 325 pounds and power cleans 285 pounds.
Junior Nick Wright (6-0, 210) played on the junior varsity squad last season but is pushing for a starting varsity spot this summer. He bench presses 315 pounds and power cleans 305 pounds and owns 4.7 speed. Classmate Junior Ty Matyja (6-0, 215) adds depth at linebacker. Senior Alvin Allen (5-9, 180) could play linebacker or safety this fall, Harris said.
Chris Bernard (4.5 speed) is a three-year starter at safety and has racked up more than 100 tackles in his first two varsity seasons, including 119 tackles last season.
Junior J. Thomas Pepper (6-0, 175) had a standout varsity debut season with more than 100 tackles last fall. “He chases the football and is hard-nosed,” Harris said.
After the brief stint at QB, Rideout, who transferred from Little Rock Central, recovered from the hand injury in time to move to cornerback and lead the Panthers in interceptions, with six. He has scholarship offers from Central Arkansas, Alcorn State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Tennessee-Martin. “He is a good cover corner with good ball skills,” Harris said.
Junior Julius Stinson (5-9, 165) didn’t play last season due to injury but could play cornerback or safety this season. Classmate O’Marcus King (5-7, 155) used his speed to star at running back in junior high, but with a crowded backfield has moved to cornerback where he will challenge for a starting job. ν Nate Olson