VILONIA — THE SKINNY: The Vilonia High School coaching staff is counting on Michael Atkinson having broad shoulders this season.
A lot will be on the 6-1, 190-pound quarterback, who led the Eagles to a season-ending upset of Greenbrier last season in his first start at quarterback.
"Our offense centers on Michael Atkinson and we’re going to be putting the ball in his hands a lot," said Stanley of the senior, who played running back and returned punts last season.
Vilonia returns a more experienced team from a 4-6 group last season. Many of the young players who played in the line and on defense last season are older and wiser.
"We were so young last season, it hurt us at times," Stanley. "This group is older, more experienced and is a good dedicated bunch."
OFFENSE: Stanley noted that Atkinson gives a different dynamic to the offense.
"He’s pretty good at freelancing," the coach says. "We put him at quarterback because he can give us a lot of big plays."
Atkinson should have plenty of support in Stanley’s double-wing offense, which may open up more this season to complement his talents.
Senior Jake Steward can play multiple positions. Houston Cotton, who helped lead Vilonia’s track team to a 5A state title last season, and Drew Estes each have breakaway ability. Stanley rates Estes (5-foot-8, 160) as possibly the toughest back on the team.
The receiving corps is deep in Madison Temples, Dylan Bryant, Kent Madden, Chase Marshall and Seth Warner.
The offensive line is more experienced with seniors Jon Alexander, Braylin Richardson, Tyler Velasco and Phil Collier and juniors Nathan Max and John Mclelland and is bolstered by the addition of Junior Gage a transfer from Sylvan Hills.
"We hurt ourselves on offense with a lot of silly mistakes and penalties last year," said Stanley. "Having more experienced players will hopefully eliminate a lot of that."
DEFENSE: One goal is for the Eagles to reduce the 25 points per game they allowed last season.
Logan Penter, one of the strongest players on the team at 6-0, 195, Tate Smalley and Dustin Waller should help at end.
Martin Reyes, a playmaker on defense, is back at linebacker after being injured part of the season. He’s supported by what appears to be a good frontline linebacking corps in Elijah Lawarence and Zane Jefferson.
Trey Wyatt, a standout pole vaulter on the track team, is a playmaker in the secondary along with Steward, who should be one of the top safeties in the conference."
KEY QUESTIONS: Can the Eagles avoid penalties and turnovers and sustain more drives? Can the Eagles do a better job of stopping people on defense.
YOU MAY NOT KNOW: Part of it is related to Vilonia becoming a state 5A track power, but the Eagles put a strong emphasis on improving their speed, which has apparently resulted in one of their fastest defenses in recent years.
"We do a lot of speed work, probably as much as anyone," Stanley said. "There are drills and things you can do to improve speed. We do things in the weight room to improve speed. Getting our players faster is something we feel we have to do."
THE CONFERENCE: Greenwood and Siloam Springs have moved to higher classifications and have been replaced in 5A-West by Shiloh Christian and Clarksville.
"Greenwood made you better," Stanley said. "I usually take what I think is the No. 1 team in the conference and do things on offense and defense to try to beat them and we had some success against Greenwood. Coach Jones is so good that I knew I had to adjust our offensive and defensive stuff to adapt to him."
DON’T MISS: The Eagles’ Oct. 12 home game against Morrilton could be pivotal to a potential playoff berth. "Watch out for Morrilton this year," Stanley said. "I’ve seen what they’ve had coming up the last couple of years. They have a lot o speed and I think they could make a serious run at a championship.