With quarterback Neal Burcham as the catalyst, the Greenbrier Panthers appear ready to continue their uphill climb from a bottom-feeder in Class 5A to a strong contender for both conference and state titles.
Greenbrier has won nine games each of the last two years. The Panthers won a combined nine the previous five years.
And the supporting cast for Burcham should be dynamic. Greenbrier should again be able to put a lot of points on the board.
“We think we can have a pretty explosive offense, and I like the way our defense is flying to the ball,” Greenbrier coach Randy Tribble said. “Our offense executed pretty well in our scrimmage.”
Burcham, as the co-MVP of the Elite 11 Camp this summer, has established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation as well as the state. Burcham (6-foot-3, 185) has passes for 6,374 yards and 62 touchdowns in two seasons.
“I think he’s substantially better,” Tribble said. “He’s more aware and understands everything better now. The top-notch quarterbacks understand exactly when and where to get the ball to the receivers. Physically and mechanically, he is able to do that.”
A big question is how well the Panthers can replaced running back Hunter Winston, a 1,000-yard rusher and nice complement to Burcham last season. Tribble is excited about Austin Fischeer (5-5, 155).
“He’s a different type of back,” Tribble said. “He has great vision for finding holes but he is a true receiver, great hands and runs good routes. We could do few a few things with Hunter when we flanked him out. We can do a lot of things with Austin when we put him in the slot.”
Seth Peters, Jesse May and JoJo Oluokon are all big-play receivers. Ryan Alexander and Nolan Kinder is are stalwarts in the line. A.J. Boyd, who started all 12 games last season, will add to the strength when he comes off injury.
Paul Easley and Alexander, senior ends, lead a young group of defensive lineman who will need time to mature. Seniors Blake Henderson and Gavin Roberts should lead a solid linebacking corps.
Reid Cone is a key leader in the secondary at cornerback. Jimbo Pitts, who started all 12 games last season at safety, and Oluokon should offer solid support on the backside of the defense.
Fischer and Oluokon are experienced kick returners and each is elusive and can make big plays.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN The Panthers have four tough road games in 5A West — Harrison, Siloam Springs, Alma and Vilonia. The running game is also unproven.