THE SKINNY: The Conway Wampus Cats have hardly sputtered the last two seasons under coach Clint Ashcraft — 17 victories and at least a tie for a 7A/6A Conference championship.
But the fourth-year coach wants to find another gear.
Under Ashcraft, the Cats have yet to reach the state semifinals, which are played in week 13. One goal this season is to get to week 13, which is Thanksgiving week. "You can’t get to week 14 (championship game) without getting to week 13," he said.
"We’ve got to do more," he said. "We have been good, good; we haven’t been great. We’re trying to guard against the ‘been there, done that’ attitude. We have to stay hungry and not be satisfied with just being good."
The Cats will try to do it this year with 30 seniors and 46 juniors, including a wealth of skill position players and an experienced offensive line.
"On offense, we have a lot of guys with a lot of experience," he said. "On defense, we have a lot of guys with little experience."
OFFENSE: A major thing will be to replace prolific quarterback Tyler Langley, who was recruited by several schools for football but signed to play baseball with the University of Central Arkansas.
Cody Rhodes, a backup last year and Langley’s catcher on the CHS baseball team, has stepped into the role.
"He got a lot of experience in our Monday night (junior varsity games), so it’s not like he has no idea what is going on. He’s a little different type of quarterback than Tyler, more mobility and he can run the offense."
He has plenty of folks to throw to, including senior Brandon Cox, an Arkansas State recruit who led the team with 63 catches last season, 10 for touchdown. Other members of a dangerous group of receivers are Jalen Hughes Quinton Wyrick, Sidney Moore and Tim Boyd.
The Cats have experience and size at H back in Quincy Wardlow, Carson Cook and Slater Smith. The top running backs are Jeff Anderson, one of the strongest players of the skill people, Duraon Brown. TJ Ruth and Demontrez Franklin.
The Cats have seven seniors up front, led by all-state guard Brannon Kotch, one of the strongest players on the team. Jalin Pearson, Bryon Booher, Blane Joyner, Spencer Moore and Mitchell Shipp are other major players in the line.
DEFENSE: The Cats have only one starter returning (defensive back A.J. Burton) but that could be deceptive.
"A lot of this group played as backups, so we’re not rolling out guys with no experience," Ashcraft said. "I love competition and they’ve paid their dues and have been waiting their turn. We’ve got a lot trying to earn those spots."
Some of the top defenders include linemen Marcus Wright, Hayden Moore, Kevin Tate, end Jerrell Credit, Cortez Akin, Quentin Day, Andre Willard; linebackers Landon Hood, Colby Kinggard, Garett Lovelady, Austn Morgan, Ernest Quinit, Tanner Blumhorst, Kevin Hemphill, Andrew Nance and Blake Solberg.
Leading the defensive backs will be A.J. Burton, Hughes, Devin Dooley, Mario and Anthony Tufu and Darvin Thompson.
KEY QUESTIONS: Can Rhodes operate the offense with efficiency? Can the CHS offense be productive enough while the defense gains more experience? How will the Cats emerge from a tough non-conference schedule that includes Bryant, Jonesboro and Cabot.
WHAT YOU MAY NOT KNOW: 7A/6A Central has almost a complete new look this season with Fort Smith Southside and Northside, Greenwood (up from 5A), and Little Rock Hall and Parkview replacing North Little Rock, Cabot and Little Rock Central (all going East) Van Buren (West) and Bryant (South). Fort Smith Southside has been a non-conference game and we have traditionally scrimmage Nothside," Ashcraft said. "Cabot becomes a non-conference game and we’re know about what Greenwood did in 5A. We’re pretty familiar with everybody coming in.
"Any time you change things up, it refreshes you. You get to go to new schools, new places, new venues."
DON’T MISS: Conway’s game road game at Bryant to open the season could be one of the best games of the season as the two teams have engaged in some real dogfights the last several years.