The University of Central Arkansas Bears are having one of the more successful seasons in their football history.
One reason is the unsung heroes of the offensive line, which features seniors Micah Parten, Cade Camp, Conner Wood and Morrilton native Gilberto Garcia.
That offensive line was dealt a blow when fellow senior Stockton Mallet went down in preseason.
Garcia said that was tough, but the offensive line banded together to become one of the best offensive lines in the nation.
"We are really close up front," he said. "We started 13 games last year, so that was a big hit when he (Mallett) went down, but the guys behind him did a great job. Adrian Harris, Conner Wood and Curtis Parker have all filled in and rotated in that position, and we haven’t skipped a beat as an offensive line."
The offensive line has allowed just six sacks, which is tied with San Diego, Kennesaw State and Furman for tops in the nation.
"We all have team goals, and our goal as an offensive line was to be first in the nation in sacks allowed," Garcia said. "We came in at No. 2, unfortunately, but that’s still pretty good."
During the preseason, Garcia was a All-Southland Conference Second-Team selection, but he became a First-Team selection after his performance in the regular season.
"Being a first-team selection was really on the back of my mind coming in this season," he said. "I’ve been working and trying to be the best I can be. It was motivational because when I went from second team to first team, it was pretty cool. I hope we can take that and go to the national championship and see how far we can go."
Garcia says working with UCA coach Steve Campbell, who is the offensive line coach, has been a key to the line’s success.
"It’s weird because it’s rare when a head coach is a position coach," he said. "He does a really good job at balancing everything. He’s coached at Mississippi State and has won national championships, so he knows what it takes. He’s very detailed and we’ve gotten really close because of that.
"I wasn’t this close to coach Conque or any other coach I’ve ever had, so it’s pretty neat. Since he is the head coach, he expects more out of you because we’re his position group. I think we have been one of the stronger units because we have had him working with us."
Garcia, who was a recruit of former UCA coach Clint Conque, found out the coach was leaving the Bears for Stephen F. Austin during a championship game with the Devil Dogs.
"I found out while I was at my high school’s state championship game at War Memorial when I heard over the intercom, ‘Clint Conque has left UCA for SFA,’" he said. "I looked at my phone, but I didn’t get a text or anything. With coach Campbell coming in, he’s changed the atmosphere.
"It all came full circle. Out of coach Conque’s class that recruited us here, there’s only six of us left. After this year, it will all be coach Campbell’s players."
Garcia said proximity was a major reason he’s at UCA.
""It’s awesome playing close to home," he said. "I had two decisions, playing at New Mexico or here. I’m a big family guy, so I came here. It’s a winning program, even when coach Conque was here. A lot of people come to watch me every Saturday for the past four seasons that I’ve played. It’s pretty neat. It’s a short drive for past coaches and past teaches. I’m glad I came here because I plan on staying in Conway. I’m actually a financial advisor for Northwestern Mutual, so it’s played out perfectly."
Garcia, who is a few days away from getting his master’s, plans to continue being a financial advisor.
""I’ve actually been doing it during football," he said. "I started my sophomore year as a financial advisor, so this is my third year. I have an office here in Conway. My undergrad degree was in finance, and my other degree was in risk management. It’s all worked out perfectly. I’m glad coach Conque offered me, and I came here."
While this is among one of the more successful seasons UCA has had, Garcia said it is because of past happenings.
"It hasn’t just been this team, it has been all the events and all the players leading up to this moment," he said. "It’s also because we fell short last year of a conference title, so that motivated us this year. We have quite a bit of the guys we had last year. I don’t think we realize how big of a deal it is because we are still focused on the national championship. It’s pretty neat to know that we’re one of the greatest teams to come through UCA, and we’re not finished yet. Hopefully, we’ll be the best by the end of it.
"I want to give credit to the coaches," he continued. "They are very detailed. If you’ve heard interviews from other people, they always say we are good in all three aspects: offense, special teams and defense. That’s because we work at it so hard.
It’s just the coaches honestly. The coaches are all about the little things. Something different about this team than other teams I’ve been on, everybody loves to be around each other. There’s no bad vibes between anybody. We embrace working hard."
Garcia and the Bears will play their first playoff game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Estes Stadium against New Hampshire.