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Arkansas Class 6A high school football team previews: Talented Benton squad preparing for different opponents in 2022

Benton moves to the 6A-East as the reigning 6A-West Conference champion.

By Kyle Sutherland | Photo by Jimmy Jones

SBLive is previewing the Arkansas high school football teams from the three largest classifications. Today, we feature the Benton Panthers from the 6A-East Conference.

BENTON PANTHERS 

HEAD COACH

Brad Harris, seventh season, 49-24 Record

2021 AT A GLANCE

Overall Record: 9-2

Conference Record: 7-0, First in 6A-West

Playoffs: Lost to Marion 59-37 in quarterfinals following a bye in the first round

KEY DEPARTURES

QB Stran Smith, all-state, UCA signee

RB Casey Johnson, all-state, Arkansas State signee

WR Cam Harris, all-state, Arkansas State signee

WR Andre Lane

OL Christian Evans

LB Zane Mancheck

LB Beau Wright, all-state

CB Jadin Collinette

S Cain Simmons, all-state, school’s all-time leading tackler

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Junior QB Cline Hooten - Hooten is currently in the mix to be the next starter under center.

Senior QB Jack Woolbright - Woolbright led the JV team following the arrival of Smith last season, while focusing on defense on Fridays, and could earn the starting varsity job.

Junior QB Gary Rideout - Ridout transferred in during the offseason and is another in the mix for the starting quarterback job.

Junior RB Braylen Russell - Russell, a 2024 Razorback commit, is a Hot Springs Lakeside transfer and should transform the Panthers’ running game.

Sophomore WR Elias Payne - Harris mentioned Payne is probably the top receiver from the junior high last season and should push for time.

Senior WR Donovan Pearson - Pearson is the Panthers' top returning receiver and hauled in 51 passes for 763 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2021. He also added two rushing touchdowns.

Senior WR Logan Owen - Owen did not see as much time with the depth of the wide receiver corps last season, but Harris expects him to earn a starting role.

Senior WR Drake Wommack - Wommack got reps mostly when the first team wideouts were resting last season, but his role should increase immensely in 2022.

Senior OL Walker Davis - The Arkansas State commit holds down the left tackle spot as one of the premier offensive lineman in the state and will be a three-year starter for the Panthers.

Sophomore OL Parker Glaze - Glaze already has a next level type frame and could push for a starting role.

Senior OL Elijah Harris - Harris impressed in drills prior to his junior season and has continued to trend up ever since holding down the left guard spot.

Senior OL Karter Sanders - Sanders returns as the starting center after serving as a backup his sophomore year.

Senior OL Connor Morgan - Morgan started at the back half of last season and is one of four returners in the offensive trenches with significant experience.

Senior DL Hunter Goodwin - Goodwin is coming off a solid junior season and has received Division II college interest. The coaching staff expects him to continue to improve after gaining 25 pounds.

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Junior DL/LB Ian Alvarez - Alvarez saw reps on the defensive line but also could see time at linebacker.

Junior LB Chase Harding - Harding can play both defensive line and linebacker.

Sophomore LB Walter Hicks - Harris raved about Hicks’ ability, and it is almost a sure bet he will be starting this season.

Junior LB Peyton McNeely - McNeely compiled over 50 tackles last season and is another in the mix who could line up either on the defensive line or linebacker per Harris.

Senior LB Jake Jones - Jones is a three-year starter in the middle for the Panthers and should help ease the loss of fellow backers Zane Mancheck and Beau Wright.

Senior LB Patrick Shipp - Shipp returns after earning starting reps in 2021.

Sophomore LB Nick Wright - Wright is another incoming sophomore who should push for a starting role.

Senior DB Pervarious Perkins - Perkins is one of a few in the secondary who started games or was a key reserve last season.

Senior DB Jayvon Parker - Parker is small in stature, but what he lacks in that area he makes up for it with great effort and his ability to not only stay with receivers, but go after jump balls.

Junior DB Chris Barnard - Barnard earned starting reps in the secondary last season and his continued improvement will be crucial with the departure of Cain Simmons.

Sophomore DB Jay Thomas Pepper - Pepper impressed during the spring and could see time in the secondary early on.

Sophomore K Garrett Honeycutt - Honeycutt is in the mix for the specialist duties.

Senior K Lucas Wilbur - Wilbur handled the kicking duties for the Panthers last season and proved to be reliable (only three missed PATs), however he will be pushed for time by two other players.

OUTLOOK

Benton achieved its second undefeated conference regular season in three years before falling to Marion in a high-scoring loss during the quarterfinals. The Panthers will move over from the 6A-West, where they have been since Brad Harris has been their head coach, to the East for the 2022-24 conference cycle.

Following a lopsided 42-3 loss to cross-town rival Bryant in last year’s annual Salt Bowl at War Memorial Stadium to begin the season, the Panthers went on a nine-game win streak to lock up the conference title and earn the top playoff seed from the West though things did not go as planned beyond that losing to Marion in the quarterfinals following a bye.

UCA signee Smith transferred in from Monticello last summer putting all of the questions to bed of who would take over for record-setting signal caller Garrett Brown.

However, there is no clear-cut starter for this year yet as the race for Smith’s replacement is down to senior Woolbright, who was expected to be Brown’s replacement before Smith arrived, and Hooten with Rideout also in the mix. Harris mentioned in June that the quarterback competition could continue up until the Salt Bowl is played in Week 0.

The Panthers lose a host of skill players including Arkansas State signees Johnson and Harris along with Harris’ fellow wideout mate Lane. The addition of 2024 Razorback commit Braylen Russell at running back could make up for all of those departures after Russell transferred in from Hot Springs Lakeside at the beginning of the summer.

With three starters returning on the offensive line, headlined by Arkansas State commit Davis, the Panthers could have one of the top rushing offenses in the state if all goes to plan.

Two major pieces were lost on defense in linebacker Wright and safety Simmons, the school’s all-time leading tackler.

Though many of the returning contributors may not have the production and experience of Wright and Simmons, quite a few have been battle-tested and know their roles.

Harris has mentioned a few different times that the staff feels very confident in the box defense and with the front seven overall. In that area it has been somewhat of an experiment between juniors Harding, Mcneely, and Alvarez of who will be on the defensive line or at linebacker.

Harris raved about sophomore linebacker Hicks and is very excited about what he can bring. “When he gets to the ball carrier he has a nasty attitude about it,” Harris said. ”He is probably as good as I have coached coming from ninth grade.”

“Defensively, we really like our box play with the defensive line and linebackers. Our secondary is coming on, we just do not have as much depth as we would probably like there. We feel like we have a chance to compete for a 6A-East title which is our standard at Benton right now.

In the secondary, Barnard along with Perkins and Parker all have starting experience.

One luxury that you do not see often in high school is multiple specialists who can get the job done, but Benton has that. Wilbur is known for his accuracy and handled the kicking duties in 2021 after joining the team during the offseason, but he will be pushed by fellow senior Tate Sparks and sophomore Honeycutt.

COACH SAID

“We are moving to the 6A-East so that will be new, playing against different teams that we typically do not see in a season, but we feel like we have a chance to be very competitive again. We are going to have a little bit different style offense than when we were throwing it around with Cameron Harris and Andre Lane. I feel like we are going to be able to run the ball well, the offensive line will be bigger than what we have been the past couple of years so offensively we feel good about the guys we have got.

“We know that Marion is going to be very athletic, El Dorado is the defending champ, and then Sylvan Hills what they do with the flexbone is tough to defend. There are some good teams in the league but we feel like we are going to go in and compete with them.”

-Brad Harris