The University of Central Arkansas received mixed messages Wednesday during the Southland Conference’s football Media Day at the L’auberge du lac Casino Resort in Lake Charles, La.
The Bears, who finished sixth last season, were picked fifth in preseason polls by both coaches and sports information directors.
However, they placed six players on the preseason all-conference first team and five on the first-team offensive unit, the most by any institution on that unit. UCA placed on player on the second-team defensive unit for seven All-SLC picks overall.
"Preseason polls are mostly for the fans to talk about," said UCA coach Clint Conque, who is beginning his 11th season. "Pretty much since we’ve joined the conference, I don’t know that we’ve been picked much higher than that (fifth). We definitely think our players will read this, and it may act as additional motivation once we get to conference play."
The Bears lost one of their largest senior classes in a decade, which was likely a factor in the preseason pick.
"We lost some really talented players, no doubt," Conque said, "but we are excited about the athleticism and talent we have this year. We will be youthful, but I think we have a chance to be very good with a little experience. We need some seniors to step up in the area of leadership and we need some of the young guys to come on in camp.
"But our main thing is we have to respect the process of preparation. And that’s in finishing up our summer voluntary workouts, as well as heading into camp. I thought at some point last year, some of that got lost. We have to make sure that we understand that we’re not entitled to anything; there is no such thing as entitlements. The only way we’re going to get where we want to be is not worry about the end result, but to respect the journey and put in the work along the way."
UCA, which was picked behind favorite Stepen F. Austin, McNeese State, Southeastern Louisiana and Texas State, will be eligible for the postseaon for the first time as a full-fledged NCAA Football Championship Subdivision member.
"It’s an exciting time for our football program and our athletic department," Conque said. "We’re finally out from under the NCAA transition period. But with that being said, I don’t think our approach will be all that different than it has for the past four years. We’ve always approached it as we’re here to win football games, not matter if there was postseason or titles involved.
"At UCA, there is always the expectation of winning. That never changed even though we weren’t eligible for postseason play. I think this may put a little more urgency into what we do in some cases, but things won’t change dramatically."
Each coach took two players to the media event. Representing UCA were defensive end Markell Carter and wide receiver Willie Landers, both first-team selections on the preseason all-conference team. Also representing UCA on the first team are running back Jackie Hinton, fullback/H-back Rico Moss, offensive lineman Austin Emerson and place-kicker Eddie Carmona. Defensive back Henry Minor was a second-team selection.
Carter noted the losses of some talented players on the defensive side.
"We did lose quite a few people but I think we also gained some athleticism," he said. "We have a lot of young guys who are athletic. They are just a little inexperienced right now. There are some young guys who should be really good ones. I’m really excited to see players like (defensive back) Radarius Winston play."
One of the departed defenders, Larry Hart (who played on the opposite side from Carter last season), is in training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Game-wise, it will be a little different," Carter said. "I know I will be getting the double teams and all that Larry had last year. I’m ready for the added responsibility that comes with that role. I know I have freshmen looking up to me and I have to make sure that no matter what I’m doing, I have to always set the right example for them.
"They are going to follow my lead and I have to do things the right way. It’s my time to give back to all the other guys who helped me when I was a freshman. I wouldn’t be here without what they did for me, so it’s my responsibility to help the young guys."
"Obviously there are some differences, but our team has always played hard no matter what we were playing for," Carter said. "Just because we couldn’t play for a championship really didn’t affect how hard we played or how hard we wanted to win. Around UCA, you’re just still expected to win and that’s the way we approached it every day."
Landers, who tore an ACL during the first practice last season, is eager to return after missing all of the 2009 season.
"I’ve been jumping around I’m so excited about getting back out there," he said. "I can’t wait to get back to the day to day grind, getting my body tired again. I’ve been resting up for a year now so I’m ready to get going. I used to dread going to practice and working out, especially in the hot summer. Now I can’t wait to get out there and sweat and get tired.
"Rehab was probably the worst part of it. I watched a lot of football, high school, college, pro, you name it. I was just trying to learn from everyone I watched. I’m ready to get out there and compete again."
He’ll be the leader of a receiving corps that will have a mixture of experience and inexperience.
"I think we’re going to be pretty good," he said. "We have a transfer Derek Steele coming in, and he’s really talented. We have T.J (Adams) and Dominique (Croom) coming back, as well as Isaiah Jackson and Kenneth Robey and Joe Harris.
"We’re pretty deep and have a lot of speed."