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This offseason, Harding Academy had nine players test positive for COVID-19. At a recent practice, head coach Neil Evans said of the 41 players who are on the roster, only 20 were at practice. He said he hasn’t had to shut down or close practice but, instead, is just making the best of what he has.

“I think the biggest focus has been trying to navigate all the changes and figure out a new way to uphold the things we say are important in our program, which is really hard to do while dealing with COVID-19,” Evans said. “Every day is something different, and we, as coaches, have to plan and think through things, and we are on such vulnerable ground.

“It is truly being able to take it one minute at a time.”

Harding Academy went undefeated a year ago, winning the Class 3A state championship, defeating Osceola, 51-26, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

“It just means a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice paid off,” Evans said. “There was some luck in there as well.

“There are a lot of teams that come into the season with those intangibles and don’t win it all. It is a reflection of how our guys work and the sacrifices that everybody had.”

Junior Caden Sipe returns at quarterback after throwing more than 3,800 yards with

59 touchdowns.

“He has worked on shortening his release, which is something that hasn’t been a huge issue but is something we have looked at as a place for him to improve,” Evans said. “He can keep the play alive with his legs, but he is more of a pocket passer but can keep the play alive and throws the ball well on

the run.”

Senior Ty Dugger was the team’s leading receiver last season with 93 catches and 1,500 yards.

“I think he has just matured over a year,” Evans said. “He is already a very talented player. His blocking has improved just from what we have seen in the little bit of action we have had. He has become a much better blocker, and I think it is a good reflection of having a good culture.

“If your receivers are good blockers, it shows an emphasis on playing the game hard, and it is a direct reflection on things that you value.”

Junior Andrew Miller will start at running back after starting at safety last year. Evans said Miller is a natural running back, having played at the position every year except last year.

“He is a complete back,” Evans said. “He has great speed and goes between the tackles and is very physical, strong and a very impressive player.”

Senior Adam Fager starts on the offensive line, and Evans said Fager has gotten strong and has so many unmeasurable intangibles. Fager plays basketball and started his football career at tight end.

“He moves exceptionally well and finishes more blocks downfield,” Evans said. “That’s what you want to see, and he continues to have the same tenacity that he ended the year with.”

Fager is 6-3 and can bench more than 300 pounds and squat 400 pounds. Evans said Fager is pretty strong for someone who is that tall. Senior Elijah Swindle plays center, and Evans said Swindle’s footwork has gotten better.

“Much like Adam, Elijah has improved and is finishing blocks and will continue to hone in on his craft,” Evans said. “He is doing the things that are necessary to be a great offensive lineman.”

Junior linebacker Eli Wallis started at linebacker last year, and Evans said Wallis is intelligent.

“We were a little concerned about his speed last year, but he proved us wrong,” the coach said. “His speed has greatly improved this year.

“I think it is him getting older and maturing and his familiarity with the position.”

Harding Academy lost three seniors on the defensive line. Evans said he has some unproven guys, but they are a talented group that plays hard.

“There is no position on our team where high work ethic is not demanded,” Evans said. “I have been able to observe those intangibles in practice, and we would not have them in that spot, otherwise.

“There is some experience there because they were able to play in the second half and three quarters in a lot of games, just not necessarily in pivotal moments.”

Sophomores Levi Mercer and Peyton Cole and juniors Cooper Welch and Alec Rush will see time at the line, the coach said. Cole will also play some linebacker. Freshman Wyatt Simmons will see time at the defensive-end position.

“He is very athletic …. He has contributed in a major way the whole time,” Evans said.

The coach said Newport, which Harding Academy is scheduled to play Oct. 30, will be one of the top contenders in the conference this season.

“They have a rich tradition, very talented and have high expectations,” Evans said.

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