THE SKINNY: With an offense that seems to have plenty of spark, second-year Conway Christian coach Michael Carter has put a lot of effort in pouring money octane into the Eagles’ defense.
He quipped that he thought the Eagles were the worst tackling team in America last season. "We’re not the worst anymore," he said. "We’re probably in the lower 10 percent, but we’re getting better. We can score every time we get the ball. But we want to keep the other team from scoring every time."
He’s trying to bring that aspect up because he considers the Eagles, who averaged 35 points a game last year and averaged giving up 28, having the best group of skill players the school has ever fielded.
He has a 28-player roster, the most the school has had.
"We have only three kids going both ways and that is huge for us," Carter said.
The CCS coaches have also put a lot of emphasis in the weight room.
"We had to get stronger to be able to bring people down," said Carter, a former Greenbrier star. "We stressed in the weight room that we had to get better to be able to play better defense. Also in games last year, we got overpowered as we got tired and wore down. We got stronger and faster. For our size, we’re actually pretty strong."
OFFENSE: The Eagles have one of the best passing combinations in the state in quarterback Tanner Stevenson and wide receiver Andrew Dather.
In his first season at quarterback last season, Stevenson passed for 2,700 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 3,000 more. Dather had 900 yards on 45 receptions and nine touchdowns.
"I’ve never coached a passing-receiving combination as good as Tanner and Dather," Carter said. "We had a highly successful 7-on-7 season playing primarily against some larger schools. And Dather embarrassed some defensive backs from those larger schools. Several coaches told me after the tournaments that there were not any two players on the field better than those two."
The Eagles have another element to their offense in sophomore running back Ancil Lea, who rushed for more than 1,400 from a conference champion junior high team.
"Last year, we had to just line up and throw it because we had no real rushing threat," Carter said. "Lea gives us another dimension and will make our offense more effective."
The Eagles have some solid veterans up front in Matt Austin, Landon Meriweather, Pierson Castle, Daniel Hudson and Caleb Dather.
DEFENSE: Another tweak the Eagles have made is to tweak their defense where the emphasis is on speed. "We’ve tried to get our big players off the field as much as possible," Carter said. "We’re trying to put overselves in position that we won’t be overpowered by the physical teams."
Austin, Hudson, Brandon McFarland, Caleb Dather, Skylar McDougal and Michael Gattis will work up front with Jarret Bowden, Griffin Guinn and Seth Bickford working at linebackers. Chandler Ferrand and Andrew Dather will lead the secondary.
KEY QUESTIONS: Can the Eagles, still thin as far as depth, hold up physically over the entire season? Can the defense develop so that all games are not shootouts?
YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW: The Eagles have 13 seniors, the most in school history. "For us, it’s like 33 at a larger school," Carter said. "Everyone can play. We have great people."
YOU MAY NOT KNOW: Conway Christian has been an Arkansas Activities Association member for four years. The Eagles have made the Class AA playoffs all four years and have failed to win at least six games only one time.
DON’T MISS: The Eagles’ home games against Mount Ida on Oct. 5 and Magnet Cove on Oct. 25 could be pivotal contests as far as potential state playoff placement.
THE CONFERENCE: Two Rivers in no longer in 5-2A and Mount Ida is one of the new members and becomes an immediate title contender. Magnet Cove, Mount Ida, Bigelow and Quitman appear to be the teams Conway Christian needs to beat to move into the upper echelon of the conference.