University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque, with a team on the verge of being fully eligible in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, will not be looking for giant strides when the Bears begin 15 days of spring drills Monday.
"It’s baby steps," he said. "It’s judging day-to-day improvement as players and as a team. We’re trying to be more consistent as a coaching staff and we want the players to stay in lockstep with us. It’s not about winning right now. It’s about improving -— every drill, every practice, every day."
The Bears are coming off a 5-7 season in which they lost all seven games by a total of 23 points.
"I think last year we forgot a little about the process that resulted in us being the No. 1 team in the conference the year before," Conque said. "Coach (Henry) Briscoe did a good job getting back to old-school tactics in offseason. We are going back to basics and not taking anything for granted. It’s old-school training.
"It’s a matter of teaching the players how the things and drills we did in offseason and how pushing those sleds and throwing those tires and doing those activities in the weight room translate to the field and how we play. I know we are all tired of those 6 a.m. drills we did in the offseason. We are all ready to take the field."
The Bears return 40 lettermen and 10 starters with another 12 players who have started at least one game during their careers.
"We only have five or six players who contributed to our championship season in 2008," Conque said. "Now, they are fighting for primary roles. They’re not used to most of the pressure being on them. Instead of taking 15 to 20 snaps a game, they’re having to get used to 50 or 60. It’s a different type of pressure when you’re competing for primary roles.
"We’re looking for leadership, by example, by accountability, or vocal leaders."
The spring drills will be hampered by several players missing to injury and one to suspension.
Willie Landers, who missed the season last year with a knee injury, will be non-contact only. Matt Dickerson, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, is also limited to non-contact drills. Tight end Rico Moss will miss the entire spring after his fifth knee surgery. Offensive lineman Jake McDonald is recovering from a back injury. Defensive linemen Hutton Andrew will miss with a torn pectoral muscle and defensive lineman Marshall Loyd will miss part of the spring with mononucleosis.
"We were about to start the spring with five defensive linemen and we’re down to three," Conque said. "An injury there could affect a lot."
Sophomore quarterback Trae Cook will miss the spring due to a disciplinary suspension.
That simplifies the quarterback situation as UCA enters the spring with no significant experience.
It’s down to two, junior transfer Nathan Dick and redshirt freshman Wynrick Smothers.
"I’m excited to get on the field with both of them," Conque said. "They are both bigger stronger, and I hope that translate to more confidence on the field. With two, you just split the reps up. Both will get an equal number of reps and we’ll go from there."
He said the offense will have some new looks with new offensive co-coordinator Matt Middleton and quarterback coach Nathan Brown.
"We the injuries and youth we have on defensive, our offense has a chance to be a little ahead of the defense in the spring, which is unusual," Conque said. "We’re going to take some of our staple offensive concepts, enhance some other things and I’m open to instruments of change. We’re going to do a few different things."
The Bears begin shorts drills at 9 a.m. Monday.
Practice dates are as follows:
3:40 p.m.: March 15, 16, 18, 19, 31. April 2, 5, 7, 9, 12, 14, 15.
Scrimmages: April 3, 10.
6 p.m., April 16.
Conque added, "I like this team as far as their attitude and how they come to work. Having a young team is not necessarily a bad thing."