Big 8 Conference football things to watch

By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)

The first year of the Big 8 merger was a success. Lamar and Mount Vernon made Final Four runs, but the imported COC Small teams improved the depth and balance of the league. While many big names have moved onto playing football on Saturdays, the Big 8 will again be one of Missouri’s top conferences.

Life After Legends

The Big 8 will have a different look on both sides of the conference due to graduation. This is obviously the case every year in high school football, but several teams lost program-defining guys. Landon Hardman and Travis Bailey are gone at Lamar. Four-year starter Shannon Haney from and Zach Burton Cassville. Mount Vernon lost Class 3 DPOY Will Boswell. Springfield Catholic lost D1 signees Tyson Riley and Wallace Squibb. Reeds Spring lost Ben Moler. Gavin Clouse from Seneca. Oakley Roessler from McDonald County.
Replacing those guys will be impossible, but each team has pieces in place to fill that void. J.D. Bishop will become a lead guy in Lamar, with junior Case Tucker shouldering a bigger load too. DJ White is back at Cassville and Seneca will give people a steady dose of Monty Mailes and Preston Armstrong. There will be several new faces making names for themselves this winter.

Wild, Wild West

This is where the majority of the old Big 8 is and this side of the league has seen a ton of success over the last decade. Lamar, Monett and Cassville have all won state championships in the last decade. Seneca has had several good runs in that span as well, including a state runner-up in 2013.

It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out. Cassville ended Lamar’s run last year with a field goal. Previously, the Tigers had withstood pushes from Seneca in 2017, Monett in 2016 and Carl Junction in 2015. Now, for the first time since the blocked field goal in 2014 at CJ, Lamar will start a season without holding the conference championship. The schedule isn’t awful. They do finish September at Monett and then hosting Seneca but should enter that stretch 3-0. The Tigers end the season at home against Cassville which will likely have conference title implications… The reigning conference champion title belongs to Cassville for the first time since 2012, the year where they ran through the Big 8 undefeated before being upset in the district championship by Monett. The Wildcats will look different after being hit by graduation, but DJ White and Bowen Preddy are more than good enough to keep Cassville relevant. The Cats host Monett and go to Seneca on back-to-back weeks, before ending the season at Lamar… The darkhorse in the league may be Seneca. We all thought they’d take a step forward last season, but the Indians finished with a disappointing 5-6 record. But, they played the toughest Class 3 schedule in Missouri with loses to Catholic, Reeds Spring, Cassville, Lamar, Mount Vernon and Cassville again in districts. No other Big 8 team was impacted more by the conference merger. Right now, I think Seneca has to be the favorite now that they’re healthy and again return a huge chunk of their team from 2018. Many of those seniors have been starting since their sophomore year and have played in big-time games. Seneca also has a more favorable schedule than last year, getting Cassville, Monett and Mount Vernon at home. However, they do have a stretch where they host Cassville, go to Lamar and then host both Monett and Mount Vernon in a month span. That run will decide their fate in the Big 8. Coach Mac has a really good group… The biggest sleeper this year has to be Monett. The schedule doesn’t do them any favors, hosting Mount Vernon, before going to Class 4 Marshfield and to Cassville, capped by hosting Lamar on Sep. 20. One week later they go to Seneca. The Cubs return one of the top two-way linemen in Wes Merriman and an experienced backfield with senior quarterback Karter Brink and classmate Jamie Guinn. This season could shape up like last year, where Monett won three straight going into district play. The good news for them… they’re back in Class 3.

Beast of the East

The fans voted Mount Vernon as the favorite by narrow margin and they weren’t wrong; barring anything catastrophic, the ‘Neers are the team to beat in the Big 8. Returning a nearly intact offensive line, plus a host of skill guys and an experienced quarterback is huge. It’s also a group of guys that have been a part of multiple deep playoff runs. They understand what winning at a high level is about and the execution and physicality it takes to win postseason games. Their road isn’t easy, opening the season at Monett with eventual road games against Reeds Springs, Rog, Seneca and Hollister. This is their five-road game year. But few groups in the Ozarks are more equipped to go on the road and win games in conference. Tom Cox has a group that should be playing well into November yet again.

Offensive Players of the Year will be…

East: Zach Jones, Mount Vernon
This has the potential to be a huge season for Jones. He returns a great offensive line, nearly all of his receivers and he has a coach that will put him in space and let him play. As a junior he threw for more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. With Will Boswell graduating, some of that rushing load will fall on the very athletic Jones, but with former Mount Vernon great Garrett Hadlock on staff, he’s also made progress as a passer. The dual-threat QB could be looking at a 2,500-700 season for the Mean Green.

West: Monty Mailes & Trey Wilson, Seneca
Pick your poison. Both senior backs are dynamic, and both can hurt you in a variety of ways. For Seneca to win the league, they’ll both have to play at a high level. Wilson is bigger and more physical, and Mailes is more of a match-up nightmare. Wilson rushed for 1,086 yards and 15 touchdowns. Mailes added 561 and 13 scores despite being limited by injury. They combined for 500 receiving yards. Coach McFarland will be sure to get them touches early and often.

Defensive Player of the Year will be…

East: Brooks Espy, Marshfield

On one hand, he’s one of the most avoidable people on the field because he plays corner. However, if his junior season was any indication of who he’ll be, big things are coming. He was great against the run or the pass, finishing the season with 76 tackles and five interceptions. He has a nose for the football and should make a physical jump as a senior.

West: Morgan Davis, Lamar & Bowen Preddy, Cassville

Davis is an absolute animal at defensive end. He’s so physical at the point of attack and uses his hands extremely well. You can run at him. Ever. He’s incredible in pass rushing and has active hands in deflecting passes when he can’t get to the quarterback. He had 58 tackles and 16 tackles for loss as a junior.

He’s everything you want in a Big 8 defensive back and he plays it with the typical Cassville toughness. He treats football like he’s a hammer and everything else is a nail. Preddy makes plays sideline to sideline and did a tremendous job of not giving up the big play.

Breakout Players

Kaden Denney, Nevada
He showed flashes as a sophomore in all three phases. Now Denney will get to be the man in a run-heavy offense. Nevada has a youth movement occurring right now and Denney is the most productive of that group.

Ethan Umfleet, Monett
As a freshman he was really good, making plays in the ground game and also catching the ball in space. Monett returns weapons but Umfleet may be the most intriguing. He’s a big kid, runs hard and has good speed.

Cole Davis, Monett
He was a second-team All-Big 8 linebacker as a sophomore and every single person voted ahead of him has graduated. Couple that with the fact that Monett is extremely good up front and Davis will be a headache for opposing offenses; he should get free runs to the ball.

Brennen Espy, Marshfield
This will be the junior’s first action starting quarterback at the varsity level but he’s in Cody Bull’s quarterback-friendly system and he’s a big, athletic kid with all the tools. It may not always be pretty but expect Espy to figure it out quickly.

Case Tucker, Lamar
As a sophomore he rushed for 493 yard and nine touchdowns in Lamar’s crowded backfield. He’ll have a huge line in front of him and shoulder more of the load. Several guys will help take on that responsibility, but Tucker could be the recipient of a majority of those carries.

Jeremiah Stewart, East Newton
I love what Kyle Wood will do with this program and it’ll show some immediate dividends for Stewart. As a quarterback that can run or throw it, and while he may not be acclimated with the system, he’ll only get more comfortable as the season progresses.

Jay Lee, Aurora
He was solid at quarterback last year and he’s another dual-threat guy that makes plays with his legs and arm. Being able to improve his football IQ will make him a more accurate and efficient passer. He’s a darkhorse to lead the league in passing this fall.

Zach Bergmann, Rogersville
He was thrown to the wolves as a sophomore and learned on the fly. Now he’s an experienced junior and while he’s in a new offense, he does return standout receiver A.J. Craft and his 524 yards and three touchdowns on 42 receptions. Both Bergmann and Craft should be able to put up numbers with another year under their belt.

Cody Hughes, Reeds Spring
Reeds Spring has been churning out 1,000-yard backs over the last half decade and Hughes will have his shot this year. He’s one of the best dive backs in the Ozarks and runs with an unmatched physicality and anger. As a junior he rushed for 670 yards and four scores. He’ll be a 1,000-yard guy this season.