BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Preseason football camp can get monotonous so Ashdown head coach Matt Richardson has done all he can to make it fun in the first two weeks.
That includes having a player draft last week for the team’s intersquad game, which was held last Thursday ahead of Monday night’s benefit scrimmage with Texarkana.
“We draft the Purple-Gold team and they get to come up front just like the NFL guys do,” Richardson said. “…They hold the No. 1 jersey and take pictures so it’s a lot of fun. Everybody really enjoys it and is something that helps us get through everything.
“And then it’s right on to our scrimmage with Arkansas High Monday, so it’s here.”
The Panthers, who open the regular season on Aug. 26 by hosting Hamburg, have one of the state’s best players in senior tight end and Razorback commit Shamar Easter (6-5, 225).
Easter, whose team lost to Shiloh Christian in the playoffs last season, is coming off a junior campaign in which he had 34 catches for 544 yards and five touchdowns.
He chose Arkansas over Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Florida State, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and others.
“We are going to split him out more to wide receiver this year because if you leave him at tight end they can literally triple team him at times,” Richardson said. “It is going to give him a lot more opportunities to get the football.”
Richardson is very high on quarterback Jonathan McElroy (5-10, 190), who has made the move from running back and who is somebody that his head coach raved about to Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman.
“Our quarterback is the best player on our football team,” Richardson said. “I told Sam Pittman that and he kind of looked at me sideways. Shamar is 6-5, 200, but he (McElroy) is the best pure football player we have.
“He could play quarterback, running back or wide receiver for us. He could play defensive end, he could play linebacker or he could play safety. He is just a really great high school football player.
“He is going to give us explosions on our offense that we really didn’t have last season. The quarterback counter might be our best play this year.”
Ashdown also returns all-state wide receiver Kaiden Winfrey (6-2, 170), who had over 700 yards receiving in 2021.
The offense will also feature running threats in senior Jay-den Fricks (5-9, 180), sophomore Darnell Williams (6-0, 175) and move ins Tyrance Marks (Foreman) and Grayson Porter, who had 1,103 all-purpose yards as the quarterback at Horatio last season.
“We got a couple of really good move ins, all-state kids from surrounding areas, including one that was our kid two years ago and just moved back,” Richardson said. “He had been living ion our district, but just going to another school.
“So we literally have three 1,000-yard running backs on the team right now. Our ninth grade guy, Foreman’s 1,300-yard rusher and then our senior. So we have to figure out how to get them the ball, much less our quarterback and Shamar and the all-star receiver.”
Ashdown returns seven starters on offense and just two on defense, but Richardson likes he has seen from his defenders in preseason practice.
“We have a lot of kids that will run to the ball and act like a fool when they get there,” Richardson said. “That’s a really good thing.
Richardson coached former Arkansas defensive back Montaric Brown and current Razorback cornerback LaDarrius Bishop.
“We are so proud of both of them and they give our kids some guys to look up, too,” Richardson said.
Arkadelphia (10-4 last season), Malvern (6-6) and Ashdown (9-3 in 2021) are thought to head up the Class 4A-7 conference race.
“It’s unreal, it’s unbelievable,” Richardson said of the league’s strength. “Arkadelphia has their quarterback (Donovan Whitten) back. They lost a lot, a whole lot – I bet they lost 80 percent of their touchdowns. But the quarterback he is a competitor. He is a really good football player.”
Richardson believers Malvern has a trio of stars in quarterback Cedric Simmons, running back Jalen Dupree and offensive and defensive lineman Vinnie Winters (6-5, 300), who has offers from Arkansas, Memphis and Arkansas State.
“Nobody is talking about Malvern, but I am telling you they are going to be a really good football team,” Richardson said. “Ced and Dupree are really good in the backfield and then you have the bIg Vinnie Winters kid. And they are always going to be well-coached.
“Hopefully we can do a little bit of something and be decent. We’ll see. You know as much as I do that it comes down to a little bit of luck and a whole lot of staying healthy.”