Elijah Jackson is prepared for this moment.
The Archer City junior has waited in the wings the past couple years, studying and learning from quarterback Ty Bates.
Now it’s Jackson’s turn to take the reins of the Wildcats’ offense in Bradan Ritchey’s first year as Archer City’s head coach.
“While Ty was here, he taught me a lot,” Jackson said. “How to lead and putting that into play. I’m excited because I feel like we can make history in Archer City and do things other teams haven’t.”
What kind of history does Jackson have in mind? He listed multiple boxes he’d like to check off.
The Wildcats are coming off their first district title in more than a decade, but they haven’t won back-to-back district championships since 1993-94.
They haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 2010 and it’s been even longer (2008) since they beat rival Windthorst.
Ritchey said the first thing he noticed about Jackson after he took over for Shad Hanna is that he’s a very observant person who sits back and listens.
“He’s a guy who’s very loyal to his teammates,” Ritchey said. “When you come in here, he wants to make sure you’re going to do right by his guys. He’s a good leader who all the kids respond to.”
A guy like linebacker Gunner Smith – one of only three seniors on Archer City’s team – prefers to lead more by example, meaning Jackson’s vocal nature is a crucial necessity. Equally important is Jackson’s versatility on both sides of the football.
Jackson was primarily a running back last year, finishing with 537 yards and nine TDs. He’ll be taking at least some snaps this year with freshman Joe Castles also factoring into the equation at quarterback.
And while Jre Donnell’s early-season injury limited Jackson mostly to the backfield in 2021, he’s excited about lining up out wide and becoming a target in the passing game.
“I’m looking forward to playing receiver and being more versatile than I was the last two years,” Jackson said. “I’m 100 percent ready for that. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the basics – running routes and throwing the ball.”
Ritchey wants to extend that versatility to the defensive side, too. Jackson made 88 tackles and six sacks as a sophomore primarily coming off the edge. New defensive coordinator Clint Coles, who won a state title on Cuero’s 2018 staff, still plans on utilizing Jackson that way, but the Wildcats also have the option of having Jackson lock down a receiver.
“To me where his skill set impressed the most was watching him do 1-on-1 pass rush drills and then he’s just as impressive when he covers somebody,” Ritchey said. “He’s very intelligent and he picks up the things we’ve asked him to do quickly.”
Even though Archer City’s offensive and defensive focal points will revolve around Jackson, the Wildcats’ success will be determined by how inexperienced varsity players step up, especially in the trenches.
Jackson said the coaching transition has been smooth and he’s expecting the same thing to happen this fall.
“We’ve got a lot of under-the-radar players that are going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Jackson said. “And I know that the city is depending on me and my family is depending on me.”
While Jackson will be a defense’s biggest concern, there are other skill kids who can make a difference. Chance Warren, a 6-foot-5 wideout, is coming off a 10-touchdown sophomore season.
Donnell’s return from injury should bolster the run game, while McKinnen Beaver, Cole Stovall and Landon Smith are among a deep receiving corps.
The two areas of development to watch for are on the offensive line where only Gunner Smith returns and at quarterback where Castles offers up a young, more prototypical option.
“He’s been a tremendous 7-on-7 quarterback. He’s throwing it better than guys I’ve coached in the past,” Ritchey said. “He can sling it, it’s just a matter of doing it with people running at him.”
The Wildcats’ strength will be their team speed as TSWA second-team all-state linebacker Gunner Smith (203 tackles) returns to lead the defense.
Junior Kline Mayo is another run-plugging linebacker who is back, while Donnell, a top district newcomer as a Bowie freshman two years ago, should provide the same versatility as Jackson, whether it’s at defensive end or outside linebacker.
“We don’t have many big dudes, but we have 11 guys who can run, including our defensive line,” Ritchey said. “Last year’s defense was aggressive, and you’ll see some more of that. One thing we’ll introduce is some different coverages.”
The last time a first-year coach at Archer City finished with a winning record was Mike Wood in 1983 (he went 8-4). The past eight head coaches for the Wildcats have a combined 24-55 record in their debuts.
Archer City Wildcats
Head Coach: Bradan Ritchey (first year)
Last year’s record: 8-3
Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Base offense/defense: Power Spread/Multiple 3-4
Last playoff appearance: 2021 (Lost to Windthorst in area round)
Last district title: 2021
Aug. 26 at Quanah 7 p.m.
Sept. 2 vs. Anson 7 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Millsap 7 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Henrietta (H) 7 p.m.
Sept. 30 vs. Seymour* 7 p.m.
Oct. 7 at Electra* 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 vs. Haskell* 7 p.m.
Oct. 21 at Windthorst* 7 p.m.
Oct. 28 vs. Petrolia* 7 p.m.
Nov. 4 at Munday* 7 p.m.
PLAYER TO WATCH: WR/DB Chance Warren (Jr.) – The 6-foot-5 wideout is a matchup nightmare and is coming off a 10-touchdown sophomore season in which he averaged 11.4 yards per catch.
GAME TO WATCH: Sept. 30 vs. Seymour – The Panthers and Wildcats battled for a district title last year in Week 11. Whoever wins this should be Windthorst’s biggest challenger in 7-2A.
This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: Archer City Wildcats 2022 high school football preview