Leader Blues

Friday, May 15, 2009

SPORTS >> Offensive line top Sylvan Hills priority

Leader sports editor

Of the 54 players on the Sylvan Hills roster last fall, only 10 were seniors.
But, boy, are they going to be hard to replace.

Bears head coach Jim Withrow is discovering the answer to that question during spring football, which began last Monday and will run through next week.

“All of those guys played key roles in there,” Withrow said. “We’ll miss the leadership and character of every one of them.”

What Sylvan Hills will lose most is size, something it didn’t have that much of to begin with. Tight ends Taylor Pennington and Devin Shaw are gone, along with linemen Patrick Onuigbo and Brian Hale and fullback Lawrence Hodges.

Withrow hopes to help offset the Bears’ bulk deficiency with an influx of talent, which includes the return of speedy running back Juliean Broner and wide receiver Ahmad Scott.

“We really have a lot of skill guys,” Withrow said, noting a pair of move-ins — receivers Emanuel Tanner from Oak Grove and Michael Finney from Hawaii. “We feel like our skill guys match up with anybody. But up front and depth is what kills us.”

To compensate for all of that, Withrow is going to switch over to more of a Spread attack this fall, something he opened with last year before giving way to a ground-oriented offense. The Bears will often run out of a four- or even five-receiver set, with Broner as the lone setback with quarterback Jordan Spears.

Broner is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in the playoffs last season. Withrow said Broner is taking it fairly easy through the spring practices as he continues to heal.

Broner is one of a slew of Bears who represent dangerous pass-catching options. Scott is back, along with Taylor Clark and Michael Maddox. Devonte Britt will continue to play outside linebacker but will also be thrown into the receiver mix. Add newcomers Finney and Tanner and several capable sophomores and Sylvan Hills is stocked at receiver.

“(Senior quarterback) Jordan Spears has been throwing it pretty good,” Withrow said. “But since we don’t have a tight-end type guy, we think (the Spread) is our best chance at moving the football.

“But we’re pretty green on the line and we’re going to have to shore up some of our pass protection. We didn’t do a very good job of that last year, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job of putting the protection in place.”

Withrow said he’s been pretty happy with the progress of the offensive line through the first few days of spring, but warned that patience will be required. The Bears ran a 20-play scrimmage on Wednesday and the line “didn’t do a bad job,” he said.

With the graduation of backup quarterback Casey Cerrato and the move to receiver of quarterback Michael Maddox, it will be more important than ever to protect Spears. The second string quarterback, Ryan Williams, has taken no varsity snaps and only a few on the junior varsity.

Defensively, the Bears return five all-conference starters and they should be every bit as fast as last year, maybe more so. The biggest challenge will be replacing safety Barry Bir and cornerback Casey Cerrato. The transfer in of former North Little Rock defensive back Aronde Thomas should help and Tanner, the Oak Grove transfer, should take over at safety.

“Speed will be our strength,” Withrow said. “We will be very fast. We looked fast the other day and Broner wasn’t even out there.”

Along with the return of Broner are all of the linebackers and a solid defensive line, anchored by Nick Brewer and Alex Smith.

Withrow said 63 players have turned out for spring football, about the normal number. He figures that will drop to 55 before it ends.

“Then we’ll probably pick up three or four in the summer and get it back to around 60,” he said. “I’d really like to get that up to around 75 on a regular basis. That would give us so much more depth.”

Sylvan Hills will attend a team camp at Ouachita Baptist on June 4 and will participate in a 7-on-7 tournament at Pulaski Robinson this summer. The Bears will also play in a 7-on-7 league on Monday nights.