In 2013, Bobby Bolding and his rugged group of assistant coaches were professors of macro(football)economics. In 2014, Bolding and his staff have adjusted to teaching the micro level.
The reason the Zebra coaches are teaching the new course is due to a more experienced class, so to speak. A class that showed near the end of last season that it has pretty well mastered the macro level and cemented that assertion this summer.
“Last year, there was a huge learning curve,” Bolding said. “It’s like we were starting over every day. … Now, we’re moving pretty fast.
“We’ll pretty much have everything introduced by the end of the week — and we do a lot of stuff — that’s including special teams.”
Having just started practice on Monday, Bolding said he has been impressed with his team through the first two days.
“It’s been a great first two days,” he said. “But that’s what we expected. We have experienced players returning who are hoping to get after it.
“It will be a bit of a grind next week, so we’ll find out where these kids are.”
Bolding knows what to expect out of several of his players, especially on offense where the Zebras return eight starters (five return on defense). Leading the way is junior quarterback Ladarius Skelton who returns for his second season guiding the Zebra offense.
Skelton is part of an extremely talented junior class that was baptized by fire during its sophomore year. Skelton called he and his classmates “old men” and mentioned how it’s up to them to take on a leadership role.
“(Last year) helped us learn by our leadership and all that, we have to carry on our back the young team now that we’re juniors,” the dual-threat QB said about the group’s changing role.
Bolding said he has been really impressed with Skelton’s growth in the offseason. After losing in the 6A state championship game last year to El Dorado, Bolding said Skelton is hungry to return to the field.
“It’s been an unbelievable transformation,” Bolding said of Skelton. “He’s realized how important the fundamentals and technical parts are.
“He was absolutely devastated when we lost the state championship. But that has just given him a hunger to work on the fundamentals. It’s shown all summer.”
As impressive as Skelton has been, Bolding said senior Kenan Brown is pushing him in practice every day.
“He can’t take a day off,” Bolding said of Skelton. “Kenan Brown is right there on his hip.”
Bolding said the position battles — or at least backups pushing starters for extra reps — have been a theme so far in practice.
“It helps at any position, not just quarterback,” Bolding said of the competition. “I think it makes both players better.
“We have that going on at several positions.”
Despite returning more starters than usual, Pine Bluff still has to deal with replacing several standout graduates, including linemen Stephen Watson and Dasmine Johnson, running back Trevor Hunt, kicker Austin McGehee and linebacker Brandon Lee.
Knowing those players would be leaving, Bolding and his coaches were able to groom some players in their image last year in hopes of shortening the learning curve.
Junior linebacker Roderick Bailey is one of those players looking to fill his mentor’s shoes.
“We switched Bailey last year from defensive end to Mike (middle linebacker) to give him a year under Brandon Lee,” Bolding said. “He’s had a good summer.”
Bailey said the year spent learning from Lee has helped him have that good summer.
“Brandon Lee taught me a lot,” he said. “Coach kind of guided me behind him a lot, so I learned a lot last year. … Like him, I was a defensive end that got moved to Mike.
“He just showed me a lot.”
After losses in the state title game in three of the past five years, the Zebras know attention to detail is huge. That’s where this year’s course in micro(football)economics could make the difference.
“We just need to tweak,” Skelton said. “Everything last year with the mistakes, we probably needed just one thing to get that touchdown.
“But everybody just needs a little tweak. Everything’s fixed already, just need to make a couple tweaks. Put some screws in, and just go with it.”