Leader Blues

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

SPORTS >> Bears reach semis at Robinson

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Mark Whatley and Jim Withrow don’t have anything against 7-on-7 tournaments, per se. It’s just that neither Whatley, Jacksonville’s head coach, nor Withrow, the head man at Sylvan Hills, is going to live or die by how his team finishes in one.
Both the Red Devils and the Bears played at the Pulaski Robinson 7-on-7 tournament last Thursday and, as is the case with most of these events, both coaches found good things to take away from it.

For Sylvan Hills, it was a 4-1 performance and a semifinals appearance. Its lone loss came to Pulaski Academy, 28-20, in the semis.

“(7-on-7 tournaments) help with decision-making and a little with timing,” Withrow said. “I think it probably helps with defense more than anything. But at one point, PA was running five guys out of the tackle box. It was like, ‘What are we doing here?’”

Withrow said that, while 7-on-7 would never die out because people are so “enamored with it,” 11-on-11 camps are going to grow in popularity.

“(Receiver) Michael Maddox ran a route and ran into another guy and I told him, (in an actual game) that guy would have been blocking on that play,” Withrow said. “But it comes down to, if you throw it a lot, it’s something (you’re going to play in). We went to the OBU camp and ran 60 plays and I think 45 of them were passes. We’ve got a quarterback who can sling it and five or six guys that can catch it.”

Whatley said his Red Devils aren’t out looking for 7-on-7 championships necessarily and that how a team performs in a tournament can lead to a “false sense of security.”

“It’s a good thing to have and I like it, but we’re not going to change anything we do (just to win a championship),” Whatley said. “We’re going to stick with our stuff.”

For Whatley, it was a chance to see which receivers among a brand new corps stood out. Devin Featherstone, the one returning wide out with experience from last year, performed well, Whatley said. He also noted that Doug Sprouse did a good job of catching the ball out of the backfield and that Tyler Crook and Price Eubanks caught the ball well, too.

Junior quarterback Logan Perry got a mostly positive review from his coach.

“Logan read well, but was a little late getting rid of some balls,” he said. “But that’s going to come. He’s going to be fine. We’ve got to go back and work a little on his footwork.”

Defensively, Whatley had high praise for sophomores Michael Thornabar and Devon McClure.

“I was really pleased with (Thornabar),” Whatley said. “Especially for his first outing as a linbebacker. And Devon McClure had a good day on both sides of the ball. I really like his attitude and the way he comes to work.”

Seven-on-7 tournaments leave Sylvan Hills’ big question mark — its offensive line — unanswered. But Withrow was able to use the tournament as an opportunity to look at a couple of move-in newcomers in Michael Finney, Marquis Smith and Emmanuel Tanner.

“We didn’t get the ball as much to Michael Finney as we’d have liked to and we used Emmanuel more on defense than on offense,” he said. “But (North Little Rock transfer) Marquis Smith caught a ton of balls out of the backfield. He’s got fantastic hands. If you just look at him, he looks like a D-1 guy.”

Withrow figures Smith will nicely fill the vacancy left by graduating fullback Lawrence Hodges and will allow the Bears to run split-back formations behind quarterback Jordan Spears. But with a small, brand-new offensive line, the running game may endure some growing pains, Withrow warned.

“JuJu (Broner) can make the cuts and Marquis can make his own holes, so that gives us an insurance policy,” Withrow said. “It’s nice to have both of them.”

Withrow noted that Spears showed the benefits of a year of experience with improved maturity and decision-making. And receivers Taylor Clark and Ahmad Scott joined Smith in catching the majority of the passes.

Still, it was the OBU camp a week earlier that gave Withrow the most insight into his team. He got to watch his offensive line get some reps.

Sylvan Hills will spend this week in the weight room before the dead period hits. The Bears will host league 7-on-7 every Monday night in July, beginning on the 6th. The games will begin at 5:30 and each of the four teams will play three games.

Jacksonville will participate in team camps the rest of the summer.