Maumelle at Sylvan Hills (Thursday)
Maumelle (#9 in 5A) has an immediate opportunity to make a statement on the road at Bill Blackwood Field against 6A East’s top-ranked Sylvan Hills. The Hornets were one of the harder hit teams in Arkansas by COVID-19 being out for three straight weeks midseason, but rebounded strong winning four of its final five games before suffering a season-ending loss to Wynne 38-6 in the playoffs.
Offensive tackle and Arkansas commit Andrew Chamblee will lead the way on offense and fellow Hog commit Nico Davillier is dominant in the trenches on a defense that welcomes back eight starters. Maumelle has the tools to take that next step in a conference that features 5A powers Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian, it’s just about doing it now.
Sylvan Hills came within a 2-point conversion of advancing to the 6A state title game in 2020 falling at home to Lake Hamilton 21-20. The Bears began the Chris Hill regime slowly starting off 2-3 before stellar defense and pretty much perfect execution of Hill’s flexbone offense all came together. All-State safeties S.J. Esteen and Amarion Watson along with star running back Taevion Cunningham graduated, and senior leader Xavier Okafor will be a key piece as both a slotback and linebacker.
The Bears only have three returning starters, all on defense, so they will have to figure things out quickly to avoid an upset against the experienced Hornets.
Cabot at Searcy
7A Cabot will travel 30 minutes north up 67/167 to take on 6A Searcy. After winning a state championship in 2019, Searcy stumbled to a 4-7 record last season and will begin a new tenure under former Springdale head coach Zak Clark. The Lions have eight starters coming back on an offense not lacking talent, but it all starts with do-everything athlete Daniel Perry. An all-state back and Landers Award finalist in 2020, Perry will heavily contribute in all three phases of the game.
After hardly seeing a pass attempted for almost four decades running the Dead T offense under the legendary Mike Malham, Cabot has adjusted nicely to Scott Reed’s spread and come into the year ranked second in class 7A. The Panthers’ four losses last season were to semifinalist Conway, state champion Bryant, and state runner-up North Little Rock in the final game of the regular season then again during the semis three weeks later falling 49-42 in the final :17. Cabot lost star quarterback Tyler Gee, who signed with UCA, but return one of the best offensive lines (and defensive) in Arkansas, stud skill player Braden Jay, and one of the more underrated running backs in Mason Bell.
Conway at Fayetteville
Conway comes into the year as one of the more underrated teams with not a whole lot of outside pressure, particularly after graduating quarterback Ben Weese and receiver Bryce Bohanon. Those two combined for 5,232 yards and 61 touchdowns but despite losing that kind of production, Keith Fimple and Co. have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. They return six starters on both sides of the ball, including UCA signee Emmanuel “Manny” Smith who can play in multiple spots. The Wampus Cats could possibly have the best secondary in the state in three-year starter at free safety Traland McClure, strong safety Ashton Waller, and cornerbacks Troy Wiseman & Jalen Wilson.
There is plenty of hype for Fayetteville with multiple Division 1 players on the roster starting with the top-ranked player in the state for 2022, speedster Isaiah Sategna at wide receiver. Quarterback Bladen Fike returns at quarterback and is expected to make big strides after taking over under center in week 2 last season. Indiana commit Kaiden Turner leads a defense that has eight starters back.
The Purple Dogs finished the regular season strong before falling 37-35 to Central in the first round of the playoffs, but their four wins last season were against teams with a combined record of 11-34. Head Coach Casey Dick is 10-12 heading into year three so there is no secret that with the talent he has on the roster it is time to produce.
Pulaski Academy at Joe T. Robinson
A rematch from week zero of last season, Robinson kept this one close at Joe B. Hatcher stadium until Pulaski Academy was able to pull away in the 2nd half. Both teams are expected to be in the mix to win it all in its respective classes.
The 5A top-ranked Bruins begin their season for the first time in eighteen years without Kevin Kelley as former wide receivers coach Anthony Lucas takes over the reigns as head coach. Mobile senior Charlie Fiser, who completed 67% of his passes last season splitting time with departed Nolan Bruffet, will direct the offense full-time. Northwestern commit Joe Himon is one of the best players in the state after putting up just shy of 3,000 all-purpose yards last season.
Robinson did not have a bad 2020, but took a step back record-wise after winning the 4A state title in 2019. Running back Daryl Searcy is expected to have a big year after being held back due to injuries and sharing the backfield with departed Hunter Smith. Mammoth all-state Razorback commit E’Marion Harris (6’6, 340) will hold down the left tackle spot and you can expect the Senators to run to his side frequently.
Benton vs Bryant (Saturday, War Memorial Stadium)
The 22nd edition of the Salt Bowl, the most anticipated early season matchup each year, is expected to have another big crowd at War Memorial Stadium after limited attendance last season due to COVID-19.
Bryant comes in as the top-ranked team in the state on a 30-game win streak and is on a mission to become the third big school all-time to win a state championship four years in a row. We did a feature on the Hornets and some of the other great dynasties in state history on a previous article.
Benton has plenty to prove as the third-ranked team in 6A after not participating in the playoffs last season (COVID-19 protocols) and not winning a game in this rivalry since 2005. The Panthers return All-6A West running back Casey Johnson, plus wide receivers Andre Lane (all-conference) and Cameron Harris who was tabbed all-state. Monticello transfer quarterback Stran Smith started the past two years for the Billies. Smith is a tough runner who can impact the game effectively through the air and on the ground.
Published by Kyle Sutherland, @k_sutherlandHTP on Twitter