New playmakers take lead for Warriors

Cameron Hedger (right) tackles Connor Crain during Westside’s spring game last month at Warrior Field. Both juniors, Hedger and Crain are expected to play key roles on both sides of the football for the Warriors.

JONESBORO — Westside will put the football in different hands this year.

Seniors accounted for nearly 70 percent of the Warriors’ total offense in 2020. Twenty-two of Westside’s 35 rushing touchdowns came from seniors, and every touchdown pass was thrown by a senior to a senior.

Spring practice offered the Warriors a chance to work with new playmakers, some of whom made an impact in different or limited roles last fall.

“Some of our goals coming in were just to get those young guys more reps, especially in game-time situations, the ones who are looking to start next year,” Westside head coach Bobby Engle said. “We have a lot of new faces in new places, so we’re trying to give those guys a look and really give us a look at what they can do.”

After winning nine games and a conference title in 2019, the Warriors slipped to 3-7 last year. Westside had to cancel its regular-season finale against Gosnell because of COVID-19 concerns and lost a shootout at Hamburg in the Class 4A play-in round, falling 76-47.

Running back Cameron Hedger displayed big-play potential in the last game of his sophomore season, running for 226 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries in the loss to Hamburg. Hedger, who also had 105 yards and a touchdown against Blytheville, is Westside’s top returning rusher after finishing third on the team with 435 yards and six touchdowns.

“He was playing hurt. He had an injured shoulder where he was hurt midseason and it was one of those things he never could really get over,” Engle said. “It was a painful injury to deal with when you hit somebody, or just hitting the ground was painful. He had a huge playoff game.”

Junior fullback Darvin Fowler finished the year with 236 yards and two touchdowns, averaging five yards per carry, and junior Connor Crain also scored a couple of touchdowns while running for 131 yards on the season. Senior Michael Ivy also figures to play a role in the backfield.

While Hedger figures to take a lead role at running back with the graduation of all-state selection Tyler Ray, junior Gus Yearta takes over at quarterback.

Yearta follows all-state quarterback River Engle, who signed with Lyon College. He attempted one pass and had eight carries last season.

“It’s a matter of him getting comfortable taking snaps at the varsity level. He took some last year when we were up, stuff like that, but you have to assume the role of that starting position, the leadership and being able to command the offense like we expect him to command it,” Engle said. “It’s going to be a load for him, but he’s a good kid, he listens well. I want him just to be able to make the right decisions on the field for us.”

Seniors Spencer Long and JT McGuire return up front, but Engle said both may line up in different positions this year.

Engle said the Warriors were a little sloppy offensively in the spring, which he expected with the team’s personnel changes.

“We had some missed blocking assignments up front and we didn’t hit the hole sometimes in the backfield,” Engle said. “The more time, the more reps those guys get, the better they’re going to get. I don’t think we were as far set back as I thought we would be, so that’s a good thing.”

While Yearta started at inside linebacker last year, finishing second on the team with 64 tackles while recovering a team-high three fumbles, he may line up outside this year to lessen the contact, Engle said. Hedger, a defensive back, was third on the team with 62 tackles and had a team-high three interceptions.

Engle said Fowler will probably move from noseguard to inside linebacker, with Ivy moving in at nose. Crain returns at outside linebacker and junior Montana Neely started last year at cornerback. Engle said juniors Ashton and Gavin Rasdon also made strides in the spring.

“I think our defense is going to be fine. Coach (Bert) Greenwell does a great job with those guys, getting them coached up and ready to go,” Engle said. “We have some key returning starters in places. We don’t have to replace everybody on defense. I think getting those guys some reps will help us.”

The Warriors will compete in Hoxie’s 7-on-7 tournament this month. They plan to host pad camps each Wednesday in July after the Arkansas Activities Association dead period ends.

Engle said he wants to limit the pad camps to four or five teams at most.

“That way we can slow things down and really do a lot of coaching,” he said. “I’ve been to pad camps where the reps were so fast you didn’t really have time to adjust the mistakes that guys were making. I want our guys to be coached up, and I want other teams to be coached up.”