A strong group of veterans plus a promising young group put a marked tone of optimism in coach Jim Stanley’s voice in preseason.
“If we stay healthy, this will be a fun year,” he said. “It could be our best team since 2007 (eight victories, state finalist.) It’s all gonna come down to injuries, and it’s that way for any team. This group coming up out of our ninth-grade is best I’ve seen in my in 11-years at Vilonia.”
The Eagles have 19 seniors, the most at Vilonia in several years.
“This group has a lot of seniors, all starters,” said Stanley. “Last year, these kids learned under fire. That helps a lot.
“We’re so far ahead of where we were last year. This year, I have good leadership. That’s hustling through drills hustling through breaks.
“The seniors set the pace. Jared Willis is a junior and is always first to practice and last to leave and the kids follow him.”
Things started to turn around last year in Week 7 when Stanley abandoned his Wing-T offense for a Spread to utilize the talents of sophomore quarterback Willis. The Eagles threw Alma a scare and had conference champion Greenbrier down 14 points in the third quarter before Willis was injured and missed the game against
Pulaski Academy in the state playoffs. With Willis as a starter, the Eagles averaged slightly more than 33 points per game.
The Eagles won their first five games last season, then the offense hit a bump in a 40-12 loss at Morrilton.
“We couldn’t move the ball on offense and needed to do something to generate something on offense,” Stanley said. “I think the Pulaski Academy game (a 62-21 defeat) would have been a lot more competitive with Willis in there.”The Eagles have one of their most potent offenses in recent history. How the defense holds up will be a key.
What may surprise many this season is the Eagles, normally a grind-it-out team, will pass the ball, likely early and often because of the arm of Willis (6-foot-1, 180), who also has scrambling ability.
“Jared has a very good work ethic, a strong arm and his mechanics are good,” said Stanley. “He makes good decisions. He’s the best quarterback I’ve ever coached. We’re going to throw the ball and throw it a lot because of Jared.”
In three games last season, Willis averaged 400 yards passing per game.
The Eagles have experienced and capable skill players to give the team potentially one of the most balanced offenses ever.
Senior Houston Cotton (5-11, 170) and double state champion in the hurdles, is a big-play threat. Senior Joseph Owens can run with power with a burst of speed. Drew Estes is a veteran back/receiver who is one of the fastest players on the team. Junior Tripp Reed was a standout back on a successful junior high team last season.
Chase Marshall could be on of the top tight ends in 5A West.
Jon Alexander, Beau Miller John McClellan and Gage Johnson add both strength and experience in the offensive line.
One key to the Vilonia defense will be the development up front.
Senior ends Branson Vanlandingham and Seth Warner will be counted on for some big plays.
Tyler Gray and Bradley Stocks are counted on for solid play at linebacker.
Safety Tyler Knowles, a linebacker last season, will quarterback the defense.
At cornerback, Estes and Cotton offer speed and playmaking ability at safety.
“Coach (Bill) Buckner (defensive coordinator) is aggressive and his players will get after it,” said Stanley.
Can a quality group of sophomores fill in some gaps and give the Eagles needed depth for the 5A West challenge?
YOU MAY NOT KNOW
After opening at home against Sylvan Hills, the Eagles play three straight road games, including the conference opener at Harrison. They close the regular season with home games against Huntsville and Greenbrier.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
Willis, the Vilonia quarterback, started his football career as a running back. “Then, we saw what kind of arm he had,” said Stanley. “When he was a 10th grader I didn’t want him to throw him to the wolves early. When we got into grind of conference, it was time to let Jared go.”