Prediction: Helena prepared for strong season after narrowly missing playoffs

Published 5:07 pm Friday, August 11, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HELENA – Last year, Helena quickly figured out the meaning behind “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

There isn’t a player or coach in the Huskies’ locker room who isn’t disappointed with how Helena finished last year after coming within a win of reaching the playoffs before losing three straight to end the season.

Now, they’re more motivated than ever to return, and they have a group of veteran players who are ready to get Helena back to the promised land of the playoffs.

The Huskies do have some questions to answer at a couple of different positions, and those positions happen to be some of the most important of any on the field–quarterback and both offensive and defensive line. Each of those positions have talented players who simply need time to develop before they become the next to join a long line of successful Helena players.

At quarterback, Busby is deciding between senior Carson Acker and sophomore Nate Ferguson. Both are exciting quarterbacks in their own way, as Acker is more of a pure passer who has learned as a backup for the last three years, while Ferguson can make plays with his arm and legs and has lots of potential.

Busby said that he will go with the quarterback who is the better leader and gives the Huskies the best chance to win. He was proved right in deciding a quarterback battle last year when Dalton Llewellyn stepped up and played well after winning the job over the summer, and he has two solid options to choose from this year.

One of the biggest benefits that the new quarterback will have is Helena’s focus on the run game, which will take some of the pressure off of them to make big plays. It helps when they have a talented veteran running back in Jordan Washington, who was an All-County selection with nearly 200 touches and 900 yards last season despite missing a pair of games.

Washington will be called upon to make big plays again this year, but he will be aided by sophomore Domynyck Santiago, a rising star who Busby sees as the running back of the future. Busby has always viewed his running backs as two starters rather than a starter and a backup, and the split carries should help preserve both for the playoffs and maximize their playmaking abilities throughout the season.

Helena will also have a talented receiving corps to assist the new quarterback’s development. In fact, Busby believes this may be the best he’s ever seen at Helena. That’s because he has star players returning in Hunter Hale and Torrey Ward, who are both big playmakers who rank among the top receivers in the area.

The other reason he loves this group so much is because of their depth, which includes experienced players like Hudson Pennington, Nathan Jones, Tripp Bouler, Caleb Haney, Gavin Franks and Jarret Scott.

That leaves the offensive line as the other position group on that side of the ball which has some spots up in the air. Fortunately for Helena, it’s not a clean slate on the line as Reese Mims and Grant Vines return from last season and will anchor the line, while new players will develop.

The defensive line is more solidified with four of the five positions already filled. Brett Barry will start at defensive end, halfbacks Parker Copeland and Connor Guida will help at defensive tackle, Brock Wise will fill out the inside part of the group and Jake Quick will join the front five on defensive end.

Busby believes that the Huskies have adaptability and size on both sides of the line, which should be great traits to take advantage of while their individual skillsets and collective identity develop.

The six players behind the line look as strong as any on the team. It starts at linebacker, as it usually does on Helena’s blitz-first defense, and Joseph Roberto and Nate Thomason look to be a lethal linebacker duo. Roberto is back after a year away at IMG Academy in Florida, and he couldn’t be happier to be back in a familiar system and people and a program that feel like home. Thomason grew into a strong linebacker in his absence and looks ready to take another leap this year after recently committing to Memphis.

The secondary has exciting junior safety JT Alvis returning as he continues his rise up the recruiting rankings, and Kevin Pikard will join him at the safety spot. The Huskies will also have two solid cornerbacks in Desmon James and Eli Ray, as well as a pair of multi-position players in Hale and Fred Grooms.

Helena also has continuity on special teams with an improved Austin Lewis returning as both kicker and punter, Hal Landrum at long snapper and Caleb Haney and Tripp Bowler as the holders.

This is another solid team from top-to-bottom just like Helena has become accustomed to in recent years. While there are some obvious questions to be answered at big positions, the pieces are there for another solid season, while Busby and the coaching staff have proved in the past that they can lead well and get the most out of their players.

Prediction: 7-3. There are two directions you can go with picking the Huskies this year. There’s a world where they figure out their quarterback and offensive and defensive line situations and everything turns out well, and there’s one where they don’t. I believe the former will happen based on the early assessments of the players going for each position and Helena’s track record of reloading talent. This is one of the most wide-open years that Class 6A, Region 3 has seen in quite some time, and Helena has the opportunity to use their strengths on both sides of the ball to power them to enough wins to make the playoffs. One thing is for sure: Helena has to take advantage of this talented group of seniors to do something special, and everybody in the building is determined to give their all from week one until the final whistle to make that happen.