The familiarity Mikie Benton had with Russellville’s program didn’t automatically bring an easy transition last year as he took the helm of his alma mater.

If you take a program that built a longstanding tradition of old-school wing-T football and introduce the modern-day spread offense overnight, positive results aren’t necessarily guaranteed.

Benton learned that with Russellville last season, going 5-7 with the most losses the Panthers have had since 2004.

“I had to reevaluate myself for sure,” Benton said. “I’m tougher on myself than anybody else. I had to be a lot better than I was last year.”

Benton dialed it back this spring and taught the basics. Now he has a new quarterback crafted for the system and 12 upperclassmen who, like the head coach, have a year of experience in the scheme.

So, where exactly does Benton believe the Panthers will be better?

“From top to bottom,” Benton said. “We made sure everybody, from seniors to freshmen, knew what I meant by certain words and knew the verbiage and how to execute it. I’m starting to see players themselves coach others up. Instead of me having to yell about depth or the right route, players are stepping up themselves and reminding each other of certain things. Their confidence is up to be able to coach other kids.”

Sophomore Lennon Ries will be the Panthers’ quarterback after playing wide receiver as a freshman. At times in 2018, Benton wanted to move Ries into the QB role, but instead wanted the leadership of then-senior Jacob Naylor at that position. At 6-foot-1, Ries had 421 receiving yards and five touchdowns while earning 50 tackles and recovering two fumbles as a defensive back.

Ries has particularly taken advantage of the 7-on-7s this summer to build timing and rhythm with receivers Josh Allen, Chevis Elliott and Xavier Coleman. Whereas Naylor was the team’s clear vocal leader last season, Ries said that role has been a collective effort.

“I feel a heavier responsibility,” Ries said. “But we have a lot of people coming back and lots of juniors. A bunch of us are stepping up to be that leader.”

Benton believes Ries has the tools of a stronger arm than Russellville has had recently at the position. His experience last year at receiver only adds to his athleticism.

“The skillset fits Lennon perfect,” Benton said. “No discredit to Jacob, but I felt like (Lennon) had more time. The offense fits his mold and he’s a guy that can run. He has a strong arm, smart kid who makes great decisions.”

Russellville will lean on several of the previously mentioned skill players to improve a defense that allowed 33 points per game, the fourth most in Class A. The Panthers will replace their top three tacklers from last year that made up 30 percent of their stops.

“There were games that in the moment had there been better communication, we could’ve kept games a lot closer,” Benton said. “To the point of an Xs and Os standpoint, I feel great. I want guys to work on the mental capacity of it, stepping up and being leaders. When adversity strikes, still being able to collect your thoughts and go out and do whatever is needed to be productive.”

Russellville 2019 Schedule

Aug. 23 – at Warren East

Aug. 30 – Glasgow

Sept. 6 – Butler County

Sept. 13 – Logan County

Sept. 20 – at Franklin-Simpson

Sept. 27 – at Somerset

Oct. 4 – Fulton County

Oct. 18 – Caverna

Oct. 25 – at Crittenden County

Nov. 1 – at Warren Central{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit


Covering the Western Kentucky University athletics beat for the Bowling Green Daily News.

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