OCS Football Preview

Faced with the task of replacing 17 starters, the Ouachita Christian Eagles are relying on a new cast in their quest for a third straight state championship.

OCS' last loss came in the 2010 state championship game. Since then, the Eagles have rattled off 30 straight victories and captured back-to-back state titles.

With the Louisiana High School Athletic Association splitting football schools into select (private) and non-select (public) classifications this season, the Eagles have moved from Class 1A to Division IV.

Although the quantity of veterans is small, the Eagles return several quality players.

Despite the infusion of new faces, coach Steven Fitzhugh is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season.

“We will need some young players to grow up fast in order to be in the hunt for another state championship,” Fitzhugh said, “but I am excited about the hunger and the physical and mental toughness this group has shown through some grueling summer workouts. Attendance was the best it has ever been for summer workouts.

“We will need to execute as a team in all phases of the game to be able to challenge in the playoffs. The biggest factor in winning games will be winning the turnover margin and eliminating careless mistakes.”

Quarterback Quin Graves (sr.), tailback Ahkeem Henderson (sr.) and split end Reed Robertson (sr.) are the focal points of the offense, along with center Micah Dye (jr.), the lone holdover on the offensive line.

Only one starter returns on defense, although linebacker Cade Harper (sr.) — the reigning Class 1A Defensive Player of the Year — is a good starting point for the reconstruction project.

After splitting time with Braden Bristo the past two seasons, Graves is now in charge of the offensive show. Completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 1,712 yards, Graves threw 21 touchdowns passes with only four interceptions on his way to garnering first-team All-State honors. John Randall Bennett (jr.), who completed 4-of-5 passes for 21 yards in limited action as the No. 3 quarterback in 2012, is the backup.

Henderson is the feature back after racking up 1,024 yards and 11 touchdowns, while averaging a staggering 8.8 yards per carry last fall. Sophomore Josh Pennebaker (62 carries, 412 yards, 4 TDs) provides depth in the backfield, with Harper seeing double duty at fullback.

Robertson is the top returning receiver with 16 grabs for 222 yards, with Garry Chowns (jr.) taking over as the starting flanker.

Tight end remains up for grabs.

Dye is joined on the starting offensive line by left tackle Che' Manning (so.), left guard Cole Nelson (sr.), right guard Randy Bentley (so.) and right tackle Randy Dark (jr.).

“We will need our offensive and defensive lines to grow up quick,” Fitzhugh said. “To win the big ballgames, we have have to be able to stop the run. On the flip side of the ball, you need to be able to gain a yard when you need it.”

Harper amassed 153 tackles last season, with 21 tackles for negative yardage, three sacks and two blocked kicks en route to earning Class 1A Defensive MVP honors as a junior. Otherwise, the starting defensive cast is all new. In fact, Harper and Henderson, who moves into a starting slot at cornerback, are the only seniors listed on the first defense.

“Cade will continue to be a versatile player, but will need to be more vocal this year with so many new starters around him,” Fitzhugh said.

James Anderson and Ryan Reynolds, a pair of sophomores, join Harper on the starting linebacker crew. Anderson played in all 15 games last season, recording 27 tackles.

Pennebacker (25 tackles) will start at one strong safety, with Nick Sumrall (so.) or Grant Sheperd (so.) on the opposite side.

Henderson and Mavrick Wilhite (so.) are the cornerbacks, with Jake Slaughter (so.) at free safety. Slaughter logged 34 tackles last season, second to Harper among the returnees.

Dye will double up at nose guard, with Bryan Reppond (jr.) at defensive end. The other starting end has yet to be decided.

Whit Chapman (jr.) is the kicker, with Daniel Culp (sr.) as the punter. Randy Bentley (so.) will handle the all-important deep snapping duties. Wilhite is the holder.

Pennebacker and Henderson will return kicks.

OCS will get an early test as it is matched against perennial power Evangel in tonight's Calvary Baptist Jamboree in Shreveport.