ATU Begins 103rd Football Season Thursday

It’s a mantra that’s been a part of the game since the helmets were made from the same material as the football: the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins.

Arkansas Tech University head coach Raymond Monica has emphasized that point with his team for months in advance of the Wonder Boys’ season opener against nationally 22nd-ranked Southern Arkansas University on Thursday night.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field in Russellville. Party at the Plaza begins at 5 p.m. Tickets ($10 adults, $5 students and senior citizens) will be available at the stadium ticket office. Those with a valid ATU identification card will be admitted for free.

“The number one thing when I looked at the whole (2016) season was we committed way too many penalties,” said Monica, who is beginning his fifth year as the Wonder Boys’ leader. “We addressed that in the off-season and in fall camp. We had three opportunities with a full crew of officials and two more days with one official out there, so we’ve tried to do a better job with that because those little things make the difference in a game.”

Arkansas Tech averaged 85.9 penalty yards per game in 2016. Among the 12 teams in the Great American Conference, only Northwestern Oklahoma State University (88.8 penalty yards per game) did more to hurt its own cause.

Despite that fact, the Wonder Boys assembled their second consecutive winning season with a 6-5 overall record a year ago. It marked the first back-to-back winning seasons for ATU since it put together three consecutive winning overall records from 2004-06.

One of the factors in making that winning season possible in 2016 was a group that calls itself “The Stable,” known individually as running backs Bryan Allen, a junior from Forrest City; Justin Bailey, a sophomore from Mayflower; Braden Stringer, a senior from Blanchard, Okla., and Kristian Thompson, a junior from Dardanelle.

That foursome has accumulated 4,373 career rushing yards and 33 career rushing touchdowns.

“We have added a couple of things here and there, but it’s the same verbiage we’ve used for the last two years,” said Monica when asked about his offense, which is directed by third-year coordinator Brent Dearmon. “That helps the kids learn better. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the offensive line plays. We have the same four running backs as last year, and how the quarterback goes is usually how your offense goes, so we’re looking forward to see how Ty Reasnor does.”

ATU’s defense regained one of its co-coordinators when Raleigh Jackson returned to the Wonder Boys during the off-season to once again work alongside Kurt Corbin. Jackson spent the 2016 season on the coaching staff at Delta State University.

The bad news for Jackson, Corbin and the rest of the green and gold defense is that linemen Bruce Livingston, Demetris Ford and Lovis Hall all completed their eligibility at the conclusion of last year. They were Tech’s top three tacklers on the defensive front in 2016.

“There are a lot of unknowns on the defensive line,” said Monica. “You’ve got three guys who played a lot of football. Two of them (Livingston and Ford) were all-conference for two years, and the other one (Hall) I thought deserved something. I’m not saying these guys coming up aren’t as good as them. It’s just that we don’t know until we get out there and play some games.”

Returnees Seth Culp and K.J. Reid are penciled in as the starting linebackers, while a revamped secondary includes 2016 All-GAC selection Cua’ Rose as the top returning performer and Auburn University transfer Mike Sherwood among the newcomers.

“I know right now we are better in the secondary than we were at the end of last year,” said Monica. “I know that. Now, will we play like that? Only a matter of time will tell. But we’ve created some depth there and I like what I see. We’ll be challenged on Thursday night with the ball in the air.”

SAU is led by junior quarterback Barrett Renner. The 2015 GAC freshman of the year, a 2016 All-GAC selection and a 2017 preseason All-American, Renner passed for 3,371 yards and 27 touchdowns during his sophomore campaign.

The Muleriders were picked in a preseason poll of league head coaches as the favorite to win the 2017 GAC title. Since the conference was created in 2011, only Ouachita Baptist University (2011 and 2014) Henderson State University (2012, 2013 and 2015) and Harding University (2016) have captured the GAC football championship.

Live coverage of Thursday’s ATU-SAU season opener will be available on radio station KCJC 102.3 FM and

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