Leader Blues

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SPORTS>>Lonoke draws tough Warren

Leader sportswriter

They say hard work is its own reward. For Lonoke coach Jeff Jones, it has to be, because the Jackrabbits’ reward for their perfect run through the 2-4A Conference and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs is a second-round matchup with perennial power Warren.

The Lumberjacks (9-2) will visit James B. Abraham Field this Friday after they easily defeated Pulaski Oak Grove in the first round last week in a 41-6 blowout.

“That’s something else, isn’t it?” said Jones of a Warren match-up. “They say that you’ve got to play them sooner orlater, but I would much rather see them later rather than sooner. They’re a whole new beast for us, there’s no doubt about it. They are better than anybody else we’ve seen this year.”

The Jackrabbits (9-1) earned a first-round bye after claiming the 2-4A Conference championship. They have hardly been tested since a Week 2 non-conference loss at Beebe, beating conference opponents by an average margin of 26.4 points.

First-round byes can be a double-edged sword. It provides an opportunity to get healthy, but it also brings the risk of rust and loss of intensity. Jones, who has never coached a team that received a playoff bye, said he probably would have preferred to have his ’Rabbits out on the field last Friday.

“You’ll probably have to ask me that after Friday night,” Jones said. “This is my first experience having a week off, but off hand, I don’t really like it. I would just as soon be playing someone.

“If it was a situation where you knew for sure who your opponent was going into the week off, it would be one thing. But as far as the playoffs go, you don’t know, so all we could do is go over fundamentals and try to take care of ourselves.”

Running back Dedrick Hampton led the way offensively in Warren’s rout over the Hornets, rushing 15 times for 187 yards and four touchdowns, and Courtney Haskell added 92 more yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

The Lonoke offense has proven as tough as any in Class 4A this year. Led by senior quarterback Rollins Elam, the Jackrabbits have two Division I prospects in senior receiver Clarence Harris and junior fullback Morgan Linton. Linton has received attention primarily for his defensive efforts at linebacker, but his offensive blocking has also helped lead to a number of big plays by Harris and junior running back Brandon Smith.

Michael Howard leads the Lonoke receiving corps, which also includes Harris, Linton and fellow two-way player Joel Harris.

Howard has 850 yards receiving, while tight end Harris has 570 yards on 32 catches. He is also the leading tackler on defense with 105 stops this year.

Elam is just shy of 2,200 passing yards on the season, while all-purpose Clarence Harris has 980 total yards, 600 of which have come on the ground.

Lonoke and Warren look fairly equal on paper — and on the field too, for that matter. Both teams use spread formations with split backs, and both have incredible team speed. Warren’s win last week was led by the ground attack, but Warren is also a prolific passing team.

“They run an offense very similar to ours, with the shotgun and two backs in the backfield,” Jones said. “They use motion a lot like we do, and I think coach (Bo) Hembree just takes what’s there. They have capabilities in both passing and running, so we’re going to have to defend the whole field.”

Warren coach Bo Hembree is hopeful to have starting junior quarterback Hayden Smith back this week. Smith went down with a broken leg in Week 5, but took some snaps last week during the Oak Grove game. The Lumberjacks have lost three quarterbacks to injury this season.

Smith’s status was still questionable as of Monday afternoon, but Hembree was optimistic.

“He played two series last week,” said Hembree, who led the Lumberjacks to an unbeaten 14-0 record and 4A state championship in 2006. “We’ll just have to see how he passes this week, but I would definitely feel a lot better about things with him in there.”

As to any advantage or disadvantage to Lonoke’s week off, Hembree said it’s how the players respond that matters most.

“I’ve been on both sides of that,” Hembree said. “We had a week off back in ’06 and went to the state championship game. It all depends on the kids and how they focus. I feel like both of us have a real test on our hands. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out on the field.”