It’s been a businesslike approach for Jacksonville ever since its 2012 season ended unceremoniously at the hands of Morrilton. But that doesn’t mean the atmosphere around Red Devil Fieldhouse has been a relaxed one.
“The guys have been working really hard all summer long, trying to get ready for the season,” Jacksonville coach Rick Russell said. “They’ve been going at it hard during summer workouts, getting themselves in shape, and that truly makes a difference. But we’ve had to lighten things up a bit, especially with the heat being as high as its been.
“But all of the coaches are pleased with the progress that they’ve made and the dedication that they’ve shown in order to right the things that went wrong toward the end of last season.”
Things certainly didn’t go Jacksonville’s way over the latter part of the year. The Red Devils dropped their first two games of the season before reeling off six victories in a row, including a 46-14 thumping of cross-town rival North Pulaski during Week 7. Jacksonville followed that up with a slim victory over Little Rock Christian before a seven-point loss at Pulaski Mills started a season-ending three-game losing streak.
“Mistakes killed us late in the season,” Russell said. “We constantly kept shooting ourselves in the foot, and we never could recover from that. During weeks three-through-eight, we played well and were able to take care of the football.
“But as soon as we hit Mills, the wheels just seemed to fall off at the most inopportune times.”
The Red Devils still had a chance to win the 5A-Central in their final game, but lost to Pulaski Academy 51-7. Jacksonville then bowed out in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs with a 42-14 loss at Morrilton to finish with a 6-5 record.
This season, Russell is anticipating that his Red Devils will resemble the team that outscored its opponents 212-75 during last year’s six-game winning streak instead of the one that surrendered nearly 100 points in its final two contests.
Jacksonville returns five starters on offense and eight on defense, including three of its top offensive linemen. Seniors Corey Harrison (6-3, 320), Jordan Bellew (6-1, 245) and Brandon Toombs (6-6, 225) look to anchor a stout offense that scored 35-or-more points in four consecutive games a year ago. Harrison, a three-year starter who is drawing attention from several schools, added some bulk to his frame over the summer, and Russell expects him to be a dominant force inside.
The Red Devils lost quite a bit at their skills positions but return several who saw significant action. Senior quarterback Reggie Barnes (6-2, 185) started three games last year in which Jacksonville averaged 47 points in blowout victories.
“[Barnes] did a great job for us when he came on,” Russell said. “Now is his time, and he wants it. He played on the state championship basketball team, and the day after they won it, he was back on the weights getting ready for this season.”
The stable of running backs may be the deepest it’s ever been according to Russell. Junior Lamont Rouse (5-9, 170) leads a talented group of runners that Russell said can go as many as 12 deep.
“This may be the best group I’ve been around, and I’ve been here since 1995,” he said. “We’ve had some good running backs over the years, but we’ve got 10 or 12 that we feel can contribute immediately if need be.”
Senior receiver Terrell Moore (6-3, 205), whom Russell mentioned runs “good routes,” returns, and sophomore Kajon Daniels (6-1, 175) is pegged as possibly being “one of the best wide receivers in Jacksonville history.”
Defensively, the Red Devils have experience on their side. Toombs, seniors Titus O’Neal (6-3, 220) and Rondell Hobbs (6-4, 285), and junior Anthony Fields (6-0, 265) all return on the front. Also, Jacksonville welcomes back all four starting linebackers, namely seniors Jacob Price (5-11, 220) and Darrelle White (5-11, 235). Junior Justin Abbott (5-11, 210) returns, as does senior linebacker Nykel Worthen (5-11, 175), who Russell said is his team’s “fiercest hitter.”
The secondary will have a few holes to fill, but junior all-conference defensive back Kerry Knight (6-2, 175) is back after an impressive sophomore campaign.
For the most part, Russell feels that his team has the size, strength and speed at every position to contend not only for a conference title but also a state title. But he knows it won’t be easy.
“We basically finished 2012 the same way we started,” Russell said. “We had a good year, but we know it could have been much better. I think the guys understand that and want to do something about it.
“These seniors have brought this team together, and as long as they stick together, we’ve got a chance to do something special.”