JONESBORO — Nettleton head coach Steven Hampton thought his team needed an open date last week after three hard-fought non-conference games.
He didn’t get the sense that his players felt the same way.
“I think last week was much needed physically to have off, but I think our kids would have preferred to have been playing,” Hampton said. “It’s not as much fun watching other teams play, so I think our guys are ready to go.”
Off to a 3-0 start for the second consecutive season, the defending 5A-East champion Raiders open conference play this evening on the road against longtime contender Batesville (2-1). Kickoff at Pioneer Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Nettleton is the first 5A-East team to encounter the Pioneers since Dave King, their head coach for 26 seasons, stepped down in April. Ryan Morrow, a former Batesville player and assistant coach, took over the program.
Hampton says Batesville looks much the same under Morrow.
“Even though Coach King is not there, scheme-wise they’re a lot the same, doing a lot of the same stuff. They’re really good at what they do,” Hampton said. “They’ve got a few new kids, move-ins, who weren’t there last year, and they’ve made an impact on their team. They’re physical as usual, aggressive defensively. Those are things that jump out at you when you watch film.”
Batesville’s most recent victory also jumps out. The Pioneers rallied from 11 points down to nip Harrison 25-24 in overtime two weeks ago, handing the Goblins their first loss.
Morrow debuted with a one-point victory as the Pioneers opened the season with a 40-39 victory over Searcy. Batesville suffered a 35-0 loss at Maumelle in its second game.
“To beat Harrison no matter what, that’s a big-time win,” Hampton said. “The way they did it, to come back, tie the ballgame and then win it in overtime, was impressive.”
Nettleton owns victories over Mountain Home (49-39), Pocahontas (26-21) and Blytheville (30-25), winning each of the last two games after trailing in the fourth quarter.
Junior Curtez Smith fuels an offense that is averaging 408 yards per game. Smith leads Nettleton in rushing (40 carries, 291 yards, six touchdowns) and receiving (15 catches, 322 yards, four touchdowns). He has also passed for 66 yards.
While Hampton envisioned Smith in an all-purpose role, the Raiders are looking for even more ways to put the ball in his hands.
“We knew he was going to be pretty versatile. We’re using him at receiver obviously and we knew he would be our wildcat quarterback,” Hampton said. “Now it just expands from week to week, finding different ways to utilize him that teams haven’t seen. It kind of just grows from week to week. We’re always looking for new formations, new plays, wherever we can utilize him best.”
Sophomore quarterback Maddox Hampton has also shined, completing 29-of-44 passes for 565 yards and seven touchdowns. Senior running back KeAndre Pope has 255 yards on 53 carries, while junior receiver Quordarius Thompson has 12 receptions for 235 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensively, senior linebacker Blake Brown has 34 tackles and senior defensive lineman Jordan Pigram has five tackles for loss.
Hampton said the Raiders went back to fundamentals during their open date.
“There’s always things we can get better at,” Hampton said. “We chart each week all of our missed tackles that we have defensively, what kind of tackles were they, whether they were out in the open. Those are things that we try to emphasize and see if there is a pattern of tackles that we’re missing consistently.
“We try to work on those things and correct those, and it’s the same thing offensively. We track all of our penalties whether it’s holding or whatever, and try to eliminate those things, and we work on ball security, just fundamentals that you carry through any game.”