Tigers’ Defense Shapes Up
PRAIRIE GROVE — Head coach Danny Abshier and defensive coordinator Craig Laird have been busy fine tuning Prairie Grove’s defense for the season opener Tuesday at rival Farmington.
Four defensive starters return from a unit that allowed only 13 points-a-game last season when the Tigers advanced to the state semifinals.
Senior DeMarkus Cooper (6-0, 249) is big and mobile. He can play either defensive end or defensive tackle. Cooper also plays basketball demonstrating nimble footwork.
“He’s big enough, we can switch him back and forth,” Laird said.
Senior Will Hawkins (6-4, 335) clogs up the middle at defensive tackle along with classmate Landon Walldrop (5-10, 296), who started last year on defense and played a lot.
Junior defensive end Lane Dalton (5-9, 188) is one of the Tigers’ faster defensive linemen.
“Ideally, he’s out there with one of those other guys,” Laird said. “We’ve got a big, heavy hole-plugger and we’ve got a guy, who can run.”
Senior Garrett Heltemes (6-0, 178) provides depth at defensive end as does junior Ethan Guenther (5-11, 224) along with junior Daytona Pinkley (5-5, 175). Ethan Guenther may also play linebacker. His younger brother, sophomore Graham Guenther (6-0, 207) is also available.
Senior outside linebacker Anthony Johnson (5-8, 189), a 3-year starter, is the most experienced Tiger defender. He accounted for 93 tackles last year.
“He’s smart, he’s probably got as much pop to him as anybody,” Laird said. “And he’s got the speed to go with it. He makes a lot of highlights on our defense.”
Outside linebacker Kaine Caswell, a 5-9, 148-pound junior, was impressive last year seeing action when Prairie Grove had a big lead in late-game detail.
“He’s just a football player, he relishes contact,” Laird said. “He did some impressive things as a late-game backup.”
Junior Couper Allen (5-9, 155) makes up for his lack of size in how hard he plays and by being coachable. Allen has a nose for the ball.
“He’s a really tough kid with a high football IQ ,” Laird said. “He’s fun to coach.”
Junior Matt Jones (5-5, 128) is a tough kid and hard worker classified as a team player by coaches.
“Jones is respectful, a perfectionist, all the time asking questions trying to get things right,” Laird said.
Junior Ethan Scates (5-7, 155)
lacks experience at the varsity level. He didn’t play as a sophomore, but the coaches are glad to have him back on the field. Scates is a leader in a youth group and coaches want to see Scates assert himself on the football field.
“He was one of our hardest hitters in junior high,” Laird said. “He was a ball-hawk. He’s a great Christian kid. Once he gets more experience within our system, we’re looking for big things from him.”
Senior Dustin Burton (5-11, 211) switches from weak-side to strong-side inside linebacker. Laird says Burton is what a defense wants in a middle linebacker with a blue-collar, team-first work ethic and a nose for the ball.
Laird emphasizes, “It’s a new side, not a new position. He’s got to learn the technique. He’s done well with it.”
“He’s as tough as they come, he’s hard-nosed,” Laird said. “He does not complain. He’s a team guy.”
Senior Clay Spinks (5-10, 138) is a tough kid with good speed. His strength is his speed and hitting while his weakness is he plays at a light weight. Yet, that doesn’t affect his desire to close on a ball-carrier and make a tackle.
“He just loves to hit, he’s very aggressive,” Laird said. “Last year, he really gained our attention playing scout-team defense. He was always learning all he could. He lined up where he needs to. He’s quick and he likes to hit.”
Jared Harger (5-7, 154) is one of the team’s strongest and fastest sophomores. He has impressed the coaches in drills.
“We’re definitely going to look for some help from him on special teams,” Laird said. “He has potential to be as good a high school linebacker as he wants to be.”
Coaches have moved sophomore Graham Guenther (6-0, 207) back and forth from defensive end to inside linebacker.
“He’s a big, strong kid, who runs good,” Laird said. “His strength is his size. That really makes him a football player.
Junior Cameron Cox (5-10, 174) is extremely coachable and may have the highest IQ among the Tiger linebacking corps.
“He’s probably our fastest linebacker speed-wise,” Laird said. “He’ll contribute, too. We feel like when he goes in we don’t miss a beat.”
Junior Chuckie Edwards (5-9, 205) moved to Prairie Grove from Ozark, Mo. Edwards showed up for every Tiger workout over the summer and the coaches noticed.
“He’s learning our system. He’s got size we really like,” Laird said. “Again, he’s really coachable trying to learn what to do. He’s rapidly made himself a part of this football team. We respect him for that. He’s going to be on the kickoff team.”
Coaches have high expectations and high hopes for junior Ethan Guenther (5-11, 224), who may also play on the defensive line.
Twins Stone Bryant (5-11, 165), at strong safety/outside linebacker, and cornerback Collin Bryant (6-0, 172), both seniors; lead the Tiger secondary.
Stone Bryant missed part of the offseason because of a shoulder injury, but has returned. His versatility enable him to play safety or either of two hybrid positions at strong safety/outside linebacker or strong safety/ inside linebacker.
“He had a lot of highlights last year on our defense,” Laird said. “He’s one of the most athletic kids we have. He’s a great player for us. We’re excited to have him back.”
Senior John David Elder (6-2, 168) can also line up at a hybrid outside linebacker/ safety position. He’ll play free safety this season after switching back and forth between both safety spots last year.
“He got an interception last year for us so we’ve got some experience coming back on defense for us,” Laird said.
Collin Bryant plays exceptionally tough for a cornerback. Laird describes him as savvy and athletic and likes contact.
“He can play anywhere, he just fits with our unit better as a cornerback,” Laird said.
Abshier likes Collin Bryant’s tendency to play smash-mouth football.
“He’ll hit somebody stinking hard with a big ol’ smile on his face, which is a little bit unusual for a corner,” Abshier said.
Senior Tyler Davidson (5-9, 153) specializes as a defensive player, and according to Laird is probably the athlete most comparable to 3-year starter Isaac Disney as a shut-down corner. Davidson did good things during 7-on-7 competition.
“He loves the weight room, he’s maybe the quickest kid on the team. He likes contact, he likes to hit, too,” Laird said. “He moved here in ninth grade. He’s been patient and worked hard. Now he’s finally getting his chance to step into the spotlight. He’s kind of a defensive-guy only. He likes that.”
Senior Aaron Preston (5-7, 143) gives the Tigers a third cornerback. He played weakside safety last year and Laird said making the transition speaks to his athletic ability.
“He’s learning a new position, he’s a very good athlete,” Laird said. “Between those three we feel really confident. All three run well. All three are good cover guys.”
Prairie Grove has more depth at cornerback. Junior Jacob Watson (5-8, 137) and sophomore Cody Kruse (5-5, 108) train well. Watson overcame one of the ugliest injuries Laird has ever seen during junior high.
“Watson doesn’t have a lot of size, but he runs well,” Laird said. “He’s a good kid. He likes the weight room. He’s got a lot stronger in his upper body. He’s hungry to get out there. He’s trying hard, running hard.”
Kruse plays with a lot of heart and moves well for a sophomore.
“He’s the kind of kid you want to coach,” Laird said.