BBY DUDLEY E. DAWSON

Benton head football coach Brad Harris already felt great about his 2022 football team’s chances and then he got a gift from above.

The Panthers, coming off a 9-2 campaign, added former Hot Springs Lakeside tailback and 2024 Arkansas commit Braylen Russell (6-2, 225) in June when he transferred in from Hot Springs Lakeside.

Russell, who has offers from the Razorbacks, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Arkansas State among others,  rushed 141 times for 823 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and also caught 24 passes for 382 yards and 3 more scores.

“We have a lot of guys coming back, but when you add a guy like Braylon Russell to the mix, man, when he walks in, he looks like a college football player already,” Harris said. “ He is 6-2, 225 and is going to change how our offense runs…He just changed the dynamic of our offense is what he did.”

Harris was pleased with his teams’s work in spring practice, including an offensive line that features Arkansas State pledge Walker Davis, Carter Sanders, Elijah Harris and sophomore Parker Glaze, that will be in charge of opening holes for Russell and their teammates.

“Man, I really enjoyed the spring,” Harris said. “We lost a lot of really good players…but what we really like coming back is our offensive line.  We didn’t graduate anybody up front so we’ve got some guys. We’ve got three guys that started all year and a couple of young guys coming back.”

Benton, whose 2021 season ended with a second-round Class 6A playoff loss to Marion, has been one of the state’s more successful high school programs since Harris arrived.

 “I’ve been at Benton for eight years now, six as a head coach and man, we have been right there for all eight years,” Harris said. “We have been to the finals three times, been to the semifinals three (other) times. We probably should have won one in 2019 when we got beat by Searcy by one after having three turnovers inside the 5. We have been right there and our kids have played so hard.”

“Last year, we felt like we kicked our toe in the second round against a good Marion team. Felt like we had a chance to make a run, but we couldn’t just quite get over the hump…We feel like we have a chance to be there again this year.”

This year will have a different look as Benton will be part of the 6A East Conference instead of the 6A West, which it won with a 7-0 mark in 2021.

So they will face foes such as defending state champion El Dorado, Little Rock Christian and Little Rock Catholic and Marion instead of Greenwood, Little Rock Parkview, Lake Hamilton and Siloam Springs.

Class 6A will also welcome Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian to its classification.  

“We are making the shift over to the 6A East and it is going to be a little bit different view for us,” Harris said. “But we are excited about that little bit of a change when you have Little Rock Christian, PA and Little Rock Catholic coming into our classification.

“It is going to be a brutal schedule and you are going to have to play well to win the 6A this year, but we really feel like we are going to have a chance to push for it again.”

Benton’s traditional opener is August 27 and  dubbed the Salt Bowl, a game at Little Rock’s Wart Memorial Stadium which features the Panthers and rival Bryant, who has won the last four Class 7A state championships.

It’s a big challenge to start the year, but one Harris and his program relish while facing head coach Buck James’ Hornets.

“That is what we looked at it as and it’s a great rivalry,” Harris said. “If you have never been to a Salt Bowl, you need to come to one. Even the Covid year, we had 15,000 people and we have had as many as 38,000 there. It is a great atmosphere during the whole week with pep rallies and events.

“It is two really good teams. We have been really good in (Class) 6A although we haven’t won one yet while they have won four in a row in 7A. We know that if we can come out of that game healthy that it will have prepared us for the rest of our schedule. I know it is going to be the same way again this year.”

Bryant has won 15 of its last 16 games between the two teams with a tie in 2014 and Benton’s last victory coming in 2005.

“They don’t rebuild over there, they just reload with new young talent,” Harris said. “I know they are going to do it again this year, but it is going to be a great ball game. We are excited about it, our kids are excited about it even though we haven’t won one in awhile. Every year they get ready to play Bryant.

“They have had some squads since Coach James has been there for six years and the last four years they have just been at a different level than anybody we have seen. But the great thing about is we know when we come out of that game that we have seen the best team we are going to see all year and they make us better.”