Hamburg tries to crawl out of 8AAA rubble

Lack of depth kept Hamburg out of the winners circle more often than not last year and Lions coach Greg Johnson is still short on the kind of numbers he would like to have to compete in the 8AAA, the most competitive of AAA conferences.

Through three quarters of the regular season last year, the Crossett Eagles seemed as good a candidate to end up in the state championship as any other team in Class AAAA football.

And then they collapsed, losing three of their final four games and limping into the playoffs where they suffered a loss to Beebe in a contest that they were not in from the very start.

Coming off of a 2-8 campaign is never an easy thing to do, but after one like last season, Hamburg Lion head coach Greg Johnson must feel snake bitten.

Hamburg has had a successful program in the last decade, and a two-win season is an anomaly in that context. But even last year, the Lions suffered no real blowouts and in fact lost five of those games by a touchdown or less. In several games they outgained their opponents and still did not come out of them with wins.

"In the eight games we lost, we were competitive in all of them," Johnson said.

Johnson chalked it up to a lack of depth, because very often, his team was in the thick of things through a half or three quarters before losing control late.

It was the first time in eight years that HHS failed to make a postseason appearance. And that squad was heavy with experienced senior players.

This year will be different. If Johnson wants to harness youthful exuberance and convert it into victories, this is the year to do it. Hamburg has a very small group of seniors.

But the team does have a little more depth.

"I didn't feel like we had enough game breakers among the backs," Johnson said about last season. "And last year we had four going both ways [on the lines] and it just wore us out."

The team has a few more players on the roster this year than last, with 37. That's still not as many as Johnson would like.

"I'd like to have 45. That's a whole other offense or defense. But we'll take what we've got," he said.

Particularly at the line of scrimmage, this Lions will feature more bodies. Three of last year's workhorse linemen are now on college football rosters, and there are no seniors to take their places, but at least this season there will be no two-way starters in those positions.

Only left guard Brian Young (6-1, 220) is a retuning starter on either line. Starting along with him will be right tackle Justin Skender, right guard Arsenio Hillard (5-11, 230), center Andy Farmer (5-9, 190) and left tackle Roy Mashburn.

On the defensive front will be sophomore defensive ends Mark Griever (5-11, 225) and Garrett Kelley (5-11, 220) and junior defensive tackles Aaron Rutledge (5-9, 220) and Johnny Stanley (6-1, 240). Johnson said that Rutledge, in particular, stands out as one of the best lineman in the 8AAA Conference.

Though there are no seniors there, the coach said that the group is "not completely untested."

Where the Lions figure to be strong is their athleticism and speed in skills position, where they have the most returning experience.

"We're hoping our skills players help our young lineman group," Johnson said.

Hamburg's foundation, as it was last season, will be built upon the legs of tailback Solomon Edwards (5-11, 175). Edwards, helped by an experienced offensive front, dodged his way through linebackers to 1,300 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns last fall.

"We're an off-tackle, toss-sweep kind of team. If the tailback is not effective, there's no point in having a Pro-I offense," Johnson said. "I think everybody knows that Solomon is a big part of the team, but everybody has to pull their weight."

Whereas Edwards had the ball in his hands on a majority of the plays last year, the coach said the Lions will distribute the ball to more players this season.

"We've got skills people who can take the pressure off of him," Johnson said.

That includes junior fullback Kenneth Terry (5-11, 170), a reliable runner and a threat to catch the football as well.

"You don't get anybody who works harder than Kenneth Terry," the coach said.

It also includes Jonathan Morton (5-8, 145) and Timothy Dunn (5-10, 150).

"They're outstanding athletes with a lot of speed," the coach said.

The Hamburg offense favors an even balance of running and passing, requiring depth in the receiving corps. Johnson said that senior receiver Brandon Harrod "runs good routes and has good hands."

Senior Jamie Dunn (6-0, 175) emerged as the go-to receiver a year ago and finished with about 500 yards receiving.

"Jamie just does things right all the time," Johnson said.

A pass-oriented team also needs talent at quarterback. Johnson is currently examining two different prospective passers, both of whom are sophomores, compounding the youth of this team. Ben Johnson (5-10, 170) has been taking most of the snaps in the late preseason but was hampered with tendonitis in his throwing arm this summer, putting him out for several weeks. He wears a brace on his elbow. Classmate Devin Cecil is splitting time with Johnson right now.

One or the other will be the man under center this season, according to the coach.

"I don't care to have a two-quarterback system," he said.

The 8AAA is a rough place to compete in, especially for a young team. An incredible number of 8AAA teams have either won state championships, played for state championships or advanced to the state semifinals in the last decade.

This year should be no different, according to the Lions coach.

"This conference could very well put somebody in Little Rock in December," he said. "This is where the athletes are, and I think there's good coaching down here also, because you have to control those athletes."

While reigning 8AAA champ Warren is coming off of consecutive state titles, Greg Johnson said that the Lumberjacks still have more gas in the tank.

"Warren's not going to be head and shoulders above everybody like they have been, but they'll be good," the coach said. "Warren and Dollarway are by far the teams to go after.

"We know going into it that we'll be young."

Still, the coach said, the Lions are not going to shrink away from testing themselves, even early. Non-conference foe Ashdown is going to be one of the strongest teams Hamburg will face all season.

"People asked me if I was crazy scheduling an opponent like Ashdown, but that gives us a measuring stick against the rest of the state," the coach said.

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