Not living up to preseason rankings is one of the easiest ways to get a coach in trouble with fans.
Well, heading into the 2013 season, Pine Bluff High School, which finished 12-2 last season, got the granddaddy of them all — a No. 1 ranking in the state.
“You never know how they are going to respond,” head coach Bobby Bolding said of his players. “Most won’t have a problem with it.
“I walked in and told them, ‘You’re not a good football team. You’re not a good football team until I tell you you’re a good football team.’ If we keep that attitude that we aren’t a good team, we will be playing in December when it matters.”
The ranking in Hooten’s Arkansas Football magazine has the Zebras, who begin the season with a home game against Fort Smith Northside on Sept. 6, one spot ahead of defending state champion Greenwood. The Bulldogs beat the Zebras 51-44 in the title game.
“We just use it as fuel to the fire,” junior tight end Will Gragg said of the loss. “We know we are young, but we still feel like we are the best in the state.
“And need to get back (to the championship game) and win it this time.”
Seniors such as running back Trevor Hunt know people are expecting big things from the Zebras, which could weigh on the younger players.
“It’s very important to keep them grounded,” Hunt said of the younger players. “Everybody is looking for a good season out of us all.”
To have a good season the Zebras will need a lot of unproven players to step up. Pine Bluff lost all but two starters — Dasmine Johnson and Steven Watson — from last year’s team, so how the young players fill the shoes of the graduated players will be key.
The biggest hole to fill for the reigning 7A-6A South champions is at running back now that Walter Ashley is across town at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Ashley was The Commercial’s Southeast Arkansas Offensive Player of the Year his junior year. He finished his senior season with 1,277 yards rushing on just 136 carries (9.39 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns to go with 272 yards on 22 catches with three touchdowns.
“You don’t replace Walter Ashley,” Bolding said. “There has always been a great running back here.
“Someone will step up and fill those shoes.”
Another player whose shoes need to be filled is former quarterback Rickey Clements, who threw for 1,581 yards and 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions last season.
“It’s going good,” Bolding said of the quarterback situation. “There are three of them (Kenan Brown, Roger Totten and Ladarius Skelton) battling it out.
“It’s too early to tell anything definite, but I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen so far.”
The position where Pine Bluff might have the most talent at is tight end.
“We’ve got two really good tight ends,” Bolding said. “I think they are both going to be Division I players.
“Everybody says it about Will Gragg, but I think John Tate is going to make a big name for himself.”
Pine Bluff fans need not worry about any jealousy between Gragg and Tate.
“That’s my little brother,” Gragg said of the sophomore. “I’m just really trying to get him to play his best, you know, get him playing low.
“He reminds me a lot of me last year. He’s going to be a great player.”
With an inexperienced quarterback in the backfield a pair of tight ends with great hands could help the transition.
“Those guys are special talents,” Bolding said. “I feel really good about that (position).
“We’re going to use a lot of two-tight end sets to use some wrinkles in the passing game.”