GRIDIRON REPORT 2014: Youthful Billies welcome new challenge, opportunity

When most first-year head coaches take over a relatively young team, not much in the way of results is expected. Not so for Monticello, which begins the Marty Davis era at 7 p.m. on Sept. 5 when the Billies host former conference foe Lake Village Lakeside at newly refurbished Hyatt Field.

<span>Of the 53 players currently on the Monticello roster, 20 are sophomores. But the majority of the other 33 were forced into playing at some point during the Billies’ 4-7 season a year ago, so Davis inherits a quite competent bunch.</span>

<span>“We can be a better football team than we were last year,” Davis flatly said. “A couple of factors play into that: One, the fact that we have kids that played last year are playing this year—which means they’re more experienced players. They have a better understanding of what’s necessary from them as individuals and from us as a team to put us in a position where we are successful. </span>

<span>“Two, the fact we’ve had a little bit more work in the offensive and defensive parts of what we’re doing makes them more prepared. We didn’t do a lot of summer work last year. This year, we’ve done some team camps and some 7on7’s, and actually work the offense and defense we’re running this year.”</span>

<span>Rebounding from a horrific 0-5 start to 2013, Monticello won four its last five regular-season games to earn the fourth playoff seed from 4A-8. The Billies had to travel to Malvern in the first round of the playoffs, and the Leopards handed them a 53-21 defeat.</span>

<span>Davis said, while the schedule is just as tough in 2014, the early season schedule favors his team this year. Whereas last year’s first two games were on the road (an early first game against White Hall in the Hooten’s Classic at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Golden Lion Stadium was technically listed as a Monticello home game), the first two outings this fall will be at home. And the opener is against one of the teams the Billies defeated last year in Lakeside.</span>

<span>“The good thing for us this year, too, is that we’ll be in school three weeks before we actually have to play a regular-season game,” Davis noted. “That gives the kids a chance to get acclimated to our school schedule and get settled in. And it gives us a little more time. Time-wise, we are way ahead of where we were last year because we’ve spent a lot more time doing football work this year than we did last year.”</span>

<span>Moving from the defensive staff when Greg Tiner resigned in May, Davis has another advantage most first-year coaches don’t have. As a Monticello assistant for 19 years, he’s familiar with both the program and the athletes he’s coaching—and the athletes, in turn, are comfortable with Davis. That combination has turned up the expectations on this transition year.</span>

<span>Even with perennial Class 4A powerhouse Dollarway rejoining 4A, District 8, the Billies are looking to extend their streak of reaching the state playoffs to 11 consecutive seasons. The Cardinals, who moved from 4A-2 to replace Lakeside when Lake Village dropped to Class 3A, just provide Monticello with another formidable conference opponent, to go along with Warren, Hamburg and Star City, among others. </span>

<span>“We’re still young but we’re experienced,” Davis noted of his 2014 Billies. “We have some older kids with some experience. The young kids are hopefully going to be able to help us, but they need to get some experience at this level. The guys that played last year played because we didn’t have anybody else. They were forced into those situations. Hopefully, the experience they got from that makes them better players this year.</span>

<span>“We have 17 seniors on our roster. Of those 17, probably 14 or 15 had to play last year. A couple of them were out because of injuries about halfway through the season, and one was out the whole season. Technically, when you have that many seniors on your team, your expectations are a little bit higher. </span>

<span>“We have probably one of the bigger sophomore groups we’ve had, too, since I’ve been back. We’ve got some good, young players in that group. Some of those guys are going to have to play for us this year on both sides of the ball, and also be a part of our special teams. </span>

<span>“But to put a young player in the situation we’re playing in this year—and in the conference we’re in—is asking a lot. We’re going to do it a little bit at a time; hopefully, we don’t have to use them a lot early but they’ve gotten the same experience this summer as the other guys have. Where they were this spring and where they are now is a night and day difference. They just have to get used to the speed of high school football and the load, schematically, that we’re putting on them offensively and defensively.”</span>

<strong>Offense</strong>

<span>Where Monticello has to find the most new starters is on the offensive line. Four seniors graduated in 2013, leaving gaping holes to fill. Only Tyler Trotter (6-foot, 305 pounds, senior) returns. Trotter started at tackle a season ago; he’s slated to be one of the guards this fall.</span>

<span>The new starters are spearheaded by center Brady Flemister (6-2, 263, junior). Flemister must take over for Ryan Tassin, who at 6-6, 298 was a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Monticello line last year.</span>

<span>“Going from 6-6 to 6-2 is a huge difference,” Davis noted, “but I think with Flemister being a little bit more mobile, it’s going to allow us to do some things we weren’t able to do last year. The main thing for our centers is that they get the ball to the quarterbacks.”</span>

<span>Joining Trotter and surrounding Flemister will likely be John Whitaker (5-10, 227, junior) at the other guard and Ryan Smith (5-10, 261, senior) and either Ben Nichols (6-0, 265, junior) or Edward Gregory (5-11, 256, sophomore) at tackle. Smith, Flemister and Whitaker played sparingly last year but all were hurt at some point in the season. Nichols played primarily on defense, where he is counted on helping in 2014, too.</span>

<span>“We were able to get a lot more work done in the spring so we were able to get a little bit more sound offensively in what we’re doing,” Davis noted. “The guys now have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do, plus their growth in size and in strength will help. They’re more familiar with what we’re actually asking them to do.</span>

<span>“We’ve got some good young kids coming but we’re hoping we don’t have to count on them this year. If they can help, they will help, though. All the sophomore linemen, along with Hunter Hickam, Jaylen Matthews and Bralin Daniels—all of whom are primarily defensive players—will be in the mix.”</span>

<span>Possibly the strength of Davis’ offense lies in the receivers. All four starters—Isaiah Foster (6-0, 167, senior); Justin Berry (5-11, 168, senior); Ryan Case (6-1, 171, senior); and Sherrod Lucas (5-11, 192, senior)—return, along with Anthony Milhollen (5-11, 170, senior), Colton Robinson (5-11, 141, junior) and Scott Bratton (6-2, 154, junior), the Billies’ third quarterback a season ago.</span>

<span>Davis said at least three sophomores also have shown promise in practice, and will see time on the playing field as well. Veontra Watkins (6-0, 172), Malik Smith (6-3, 159) and William Con-yers (6-1, 188) all provide needed depth.  </span>

<span>“We’re very fortunate to have all the receivers we played last year back,” Davis mentioned. “We’re just about two deep there. We can put four of the older guys out there to start but replace them with four who are just about as good.”</span>

<span>The other skilled positions are much more of a question mark. Monticello lost both its starting quarterback and running back and must replace both with players who have less experience. So far in practice, Anthony Smith (5-9, 165, senior) has stood out at running back, as have Dmitri Ruffin (6-0, 201, junior), Zach Young (5-8, 192, junior), Dre’ Millett (5-8, 181, junior) and a transfer from Illinois, Josh Watson (6-0, 178, senior).</span>

<span>At quarterback, both Garrett Jeffers (6-2, 157, senior) and Jeff Carmical (5-11, 185, sophomore) have shown they can run the offense. Davis said he would like to have three quarterbacks on the roster but Bratton “is athletic and smart enough to play whatever position we put him in,” and will be a serviceable emergency signal caller. Jeffers injured his throwing shoulder in the second game last season and did not return to the field.</span>

<span>“(Jeffers and Carmical) have worked equally hard this summer. That position is one of many we have that are still kind of up in the air. When you go into your first game of the year, if it’s even you always go with the more experienced player—and right now, that’s where we are. But it’s not like the other one isn’t going to play. </span>

<span>“Both have good size and they have different things they can bring to the team. Garrett is not as thick but he has a little bit more length and a little bit more quickness. Jeff is thicker and he probably has a little bit better vision as far as seeing the overall picture of what we’re trying to do. Both throw the ball well. I think both guys are going to be able to help us. </span>

<span>“Offensively, I think we’re set scheme-wise more so than we were last year. The issue last year was we had a lot of kids playing in positions they hadn’t played before. With the experience we have coming back and the work we’ve done this summer, I think that puts us in a better position to be a little bit more successful offensively than we were last year.”</span>

<strong>Defense</strong>

<span>The undisputed strength of Davis’ first team at Monticello is the defensive line, where all four starters return. Daniels (6-3, 256, senior), Hickam (5-10, 196, senior) and Matthews (5-11, 246, senior) combine with Nichols to give the Billies both experience and strength in that area.</span>

<span>“Our front four is the most experienced part of our football team, and we have depth there. The thing about our defense is we have guys up front who have played and guys on the back two levels who can actually run a little bit. Plus, they all played last year.”</span>

<span>Depth up front will be provided by Ryan Smith, Flemister, Whitaker, Trotter, Bradley Sanders (5-11, 207, senior), Raymonda Smith (5-3, 225, junior) and Luke Lane (5-8, 199, junior), as well as sophomores Gregory, Colby Boykin (5-8, 209), Stedric Moore (6-0, 240), Alex Fendley (5-8, 250) and Clay Shrum (6-1, 188).</span>

<span>Ruffin returns as probably Monticello’s best middle linebacker, Davis said, and will likely be flanked in the 4-3 Billies’ defense by Peyton Merrell (5-9, 179, senior)—who was out all last season with a knee injury—and Jarious McCraney (5-10, 151, senior). If Ruffin’s not in the middle of the defense, it’ll be Young.</span>

<span>“The fact we have both Dmitri and Zach working at pretty much the same positions mean both of them are going to play a lot. We can interchange them because as far as level of play, they’re pretty much the same. They’re both pretty good, they’re best friends and their jersey numbers (Young is No. 45 and Ruffin No. 46) are very similar. They have lockers next to each other, too, which is good. Come Friday night, we won’t have to worry about getting them in or out because if one’s on offense, the other would be on defense.”</span>

<span>Carmical, Millett, Watkins and Josh Hampton (5-10, 194, senior) have all been practicing at linebacker, too.</span>

<span>“Based on what we’ve done to this point,” Davis pointed out, “our linebackers are the most improved part of our defense. Our numbers aren’t huge there but as far as experience and quality of play versus what we had last year, we’re pretty solid. And they can all play all the different positions.” </span>

<span>In the defensive backfield, three starters—Berry, Foster, Terrell Handley (5-11, 143, junior)—return to bolster Monticello’s last line of defense. D’Angelo Banks (5-8, 142, junior) will likely join the starting lineup.</span>

<span>Case, who played linebacker in 2013, has been moved to safety this fall, and with Bratton, Lucas, Robinson, J’Son Goodman (5-9, 128, sophomore), Parker Caldwell (5-9, 152, junior) and Kelvin Hamilton (5-10, 152, junior) in back-up roles, that part of the defense should be strong as well.</span>

<strong>Special teams</strong>

<span>Case handled both the kickoff and punting duties for Monticello a year ago. Carmical did the same for the junior Billies. Caldwell and Robinson, a soccer player, are also in the mix for the punts and kickoffs, giving Davis something Monticello didn’t have last year—depth.</span>

<span>“It gives us more stability there,” Davis said. “Ryan did a good job for us last year and his leg’s a lot stronger now. He’s more athletic. That’s probably the most impressive thing about him—he’s improved in strength, speed and agility. He punted the ball really well last year. And with the strength of his leg, we think we’re going to be able to hit kickoffs deep this year—putting it where our opponents don’t have a chance to return it.”</span>

<span>As for Monticello’s returns, Berry, Anthony Smith and Hamilton should get the bulk of the work, with newcomers Watkins and Conyers vying for time on both kickoffs and punts. A glaring loss for the Billies is at snapper, though, where graduation claimed their top player. Bratton was the back-up long snapper a year ago and should step into that starting role. Flemister has been targeted as the short snapper. Both Matthew Justice (5-9, 169, sophomore) and  Tyler Vance (6-0, 234, sophomore) have been working as reserve snappers.  </span>

<span>“The big thing is executing our all our special teams is to put our return guys in a position where they can handle the ball,” Davis explained. “Our punt returns, we think, are going to give us a good chance to make a difference in the game. We’ve got some guys coming back that can do that.”</span>

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