Leader Blues

Friday, August 07, 2009

SPORTS >> Bears making do with loss of key players

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Sylvan Hills head coach Jim Withrow thinks roster numbers are kind of an overrated, overhyped topic when it comes to football teams.

“The last time I checked, you could only play 11 kids,” said Withrow, who will be starting his third season at the Bear helm this fall.

That doesn’t mean that Withrow isn’t a bit concerned about a low turnout this summer at Sylvan Hills. Two-a-days began with only around 30 players, which is a disturbingly low total for a 5A school. Withrow thinks that number will grow to 40 before the season begins.

“We knew we were going to be in a cycle like this,” he said. “But we didn’t count on (losing) a couple of guys that aren’t playing.”

Withrow lost several key players to eligibility issues and a couple more wanted to play baseball or basketball. While the losses will mean more players having to serve double duty on offense and defense and will put a larger premium on staying healthy, all the news is not bad. Withrow still has a lot of talent and says his first 11 players are pretty darn good.

The low numbers, though, make it difficult to conduct normal practices, Withrow said.

“When there’s four guys in your group, how many drills can you do?” Withrow said. “Everybody’s gotten 30 reps at that drill and it’s taken five minutes. But we’ve run a little more than normal and worked a little more on conditioning.

“But the problem with losing those guys is we’re having to spend a lot of time coaching new positions and we should be way beyond that.”

Graduation and the losses Withrow wasn’t expecting took their biggest toll on the quarterback position and in the secondary.

The Bears lost both the No. 1 and 2 players at one of the cornerback positions and safety remains wide open. Right now, he said, Devonte Britt would likely be the starting safety. There was even talk at one time of using quarterback Jordan Spears at safety or at linebacker.

Not any more, not with the loss of both of his backups.

“Juliean Broner would be the backup today if we played,” Withrow said of his most explosive player, who appears to be fully recovered from a late season ACL injury last year. “We do not want Jordan to get hurt, obviously.”

The plan going into the season was to take better advantage of Spears’ running ability, but that’s out now. The key now will be to protect him and try to keep him healthy, especially through Weeks 2 and 3, when the Bears take on a couple of physical 7A teams in North Little Rock and Cabot.

“If we can get past Week 3, we’ll match up physically with most of the teams in our conference,” Withrow said.

Spears will operate out of the shotgun, with Broner and Hawaii transfer Michael Finney joining him in the backfield. Because the Bears lost a pair of solid tight ends in Devin Shaw and Taylor Pennington, the Bears will have to mix things up for short-yardage situations. That includes the pistol offense, in which the quarterback lines up a couple of yards behind center, as well as some short routes and rollouts.

The Bears will look fairly unconventional and will run some empty sets, some swing routes to tailbacks, some tunnel screens — even a version of the wildcat offense with Broner at quarterback.

“We’re not going to be able to just line up and run it over many people,” Withrow said.

But despite the loss of his tight ends and three offensive linemen, Withrow feels pretty good thus far about his new line. He noted Spears was sacked only one time at an early camp and that Alex Shaw has really stepped up at a tackle position. Withrow added that the group up front probably has an average GPA of 3.5.

“They’re hard workers and outstanding kids,” he said.

Defensively, Withrow is big on Alex Shaw at one of the end positions, along with Nick Brewer at the other end. He’s trying out three players at nose guard, all of whom bring a lot of size to the table.

The linebacking corps will be anchored once again by Michael Robinson and Broner.

So the chore is to nail down the other two linebacking spots and fill the holes in the secondary.

“But you know what?” Withrow said. “We’ve got Broner and (receiver Ahmad) Scott and Brewer and Spears and Robinson and the Britts. I think we’re going to be okay.”