The Ouachita football team is roaring into the 2017 season with high expectations, having returned key players across the board and improved its depth with a stellar recruiting class.
“We’ll be disappointed if we’re not in the top of the league,” said head coach Todd Knight. “A lot of things come into that – from injuries to penalties to turnovers – but our expectation is to win the conference championship.”
The Ouachita football program has been the most successful program in the state over the past decade. With nine-straight winning seasons, two conference championships and a playoff run under its belt, the Tigers are no longer an underdog in Division II football. A trip to Cliff Harris Stadium is now circled as one of the toughest games on any team’s schedule.
Last season, the Tigers survived a season of adversity. At one point, 11 players were out with injury, including many players at key positions. Ouachita finished the season 7-4, going 4-1 in their last five games. Head coach Todd Knight and many of the team members described that final record with disappointment, but they expressed pride with how the team fought and backup players performed.
“It was the most fun you can ever have being 7-4,” Knight said. “It’s a lot of fun to coach guys who respond to adversity, and that’s what they did last year.”
This year, many of the players who stepped up and withstood adversity return alongside many of the formerly injured players.
Ouachita’s quarterback position features two of the best quarterbacks in the conference, each of which played in 6 games last season. The 2015 GAC rushing leader Kris Oliver returns to the running back position after going down with an injury last season, and he is joined by sophomore Shun’cee Thomas, who catapulted himself up the depth chart last season by rushing for over 600 yards in the final five games of the season.
Sophomore wide receiver and kick returner Allie Freeman IV returns after finding himself in a starting position last season following a multitude of injuries at receiver. Freeman took the opportunity and ended the season with over 1,400 all-purpose yards and the GAC Freshman of the Year award.
“Now that he has an offseason under his belt, he’s a little thicker. He’s a little stronger, and he’s a lot more confident,” Knight said of Freeman. “He knows what he’s doing in the return game. He knows what he’s doing as far as receiver. He’s going to have a phenomenal year.”
The Tigers are unquestionably talented at skill positions. With Warford, Oliver, Freeman and junior wide receiver Drew Harris all coming back, the Tigers are loaded. Regardless of how good a team’s skill players are, they can only do as well as their offensive line allows them. The line has to open gaps in the running game and give the quarterback time to find an open receiver in the passing game. Ouachita lost two key players on the offensive line from last year’s team, and the new members may take some time to integrate into the unit.
“We’re still not clicking 100% where we need to be, where we will be,” Knight said. “The offensive line is usually the last thing that comes together. If you’re a safety, you’re playing in that single safety position. If you’re an offensive lineman, you’re playing side-by-side. It all works together: all the calls, all the steps, everything. It’s a totally different position, so it takes a lot of timing. People talk about the timing for a receiver and a quarterback, but they can’t even touch the timing you have to have as an offensive line. It’s one of the toughest positions in college football.”
The offensive line returns redshirt-sophomores Justin and Cori Gooseberry at the tackles as well as redshirt-junior Cam Alexander at center. Coach Knight considers Alexander to be one of the team’s leaders. Replacing graduated seniors at the guard positions are Louisiana-Monroe transfer Austin Blair and redshirt-junior Tyler Gahr.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in both of those guys,” Alexander said of his teammates. “I really think we’ll come together as a unit.”
Defensively, the Tigers will return a multitude of key players. Senior Shaquille Hunter returns to the defensive backfield, while the linebacker trio of Jon Johnson, Luke Holt and Elijah Jones all come back after a great 2016 season. Parker Whit, Ernest Reed, John Rachel and Demetric Jennings all come back to the defensive line.
“We have a lot of great older guys,” said linebacker Luke Holt, “and I think that makes this team different from teams in the past.”
Even with all of the talent returning, the Tigers still needed an offseason of hard work to grow the players and bring them even closer as a team. Thankfully, Ouachita’s outstanding end to the 2016 season brought an edge into the offseason for the returning players.
“I definitely think those last games were really big, especially the Henderson,” Holt said. “There were some games I wish we could’ve pulled out. Finishing against Henderson like we did, I feel like that carried into the spring. This spring was a lot better than the spring before it.”
The offseason began with “Purple Haze,” a unit of grueling practices which are meant to bring the team together and teach them about disciple and toughness. After Purple Haze, spring practices began and the players fine-tuned their fundamentals, timing and awareness. The players showed their work ethic in July by coming to Arkadelphia on their own time to work out together and improve before fall camp began in August.
“Our advantage is our work ethic,” Coach Knight said. “Throughout all of camp, we’ve had three bad practices. Camp is tough. It is a grind, but the guys responded.”
Fall camp allowed the team’s newcomers to integrate with the returning members of the team. Freshmen are vital to providing depth to a team, and they might just make an instant impact. Last year, Allie Freeman, Shun’cee Thomas and linebacker Jon Johnson made a big impact on the team as freshmen and Coach Knight expects there will be some freshmen who will make an impact this season as well.
“Defensively, there’s a lot of freshmen who will make an impact,” Knight said. “You won’t see it like you do with a punt returner or a receiver, but they’ll make an impact this year.”
There is a lot of excitement surrounding the Ouachita football team this season. They have a lot of talent and experienced an extremely productive offseason of practice. It would be easy for the Tigers to think ahead towards end-of-the-season accolades, but Coach Knight has different goals in mind.
“[Our main goal] is to win our first game.”
by Caleb Byrd, Sports Editor