In an appearance before a packed house at Wednesday’s Kiwanis Club luncheon, University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque noted that the most important question in the state this summer "concerned the screw in (Arkansas quarterback) Ryan Mallett’s foot."
"That’s how important that position is," Conque said.
That led him to a discussion of the transformation of UCA junior quarterback Nathan Dick, a transfer from the University of Arkansas who saw limited action last season and will be the starter this year.
"The guy who showed up on campus last year from the UA was an imposter; now, we have the real deal," said Conque about Dick’s improvement.
"He’s taken ownership of the team and the responsibility of leadership and being ‘the man.’ He’s more vocal and is throwing extremely well. He looks like a bigtime Divisiion I college quarterback. With the physical transformation has come confidence in his physical abilities. The receivers and players around him have more confidence in him."
He said Wynrick Smothers, a redshirt freshman who has a strong arm and breakaway abilities, will have some special packages.
"I hesitate to call it a two-quarterback system but we will play two quarterbacks," Conque said.
Jim Youngblood, a sophomore transfer from the UA, is coming off shoulder surgery.
"The young man you see today and in spring practice next season will be two different individuals," Conque said.
He noted that preseason camp was physical and hot.
"We had seven or eight players have to go to Conway Regional for hydration issues," he said. "I don’t remember a preseason camp that had so much consistent 100-degree weather as we did this year. It’s a strange thing in this part of the country. You start the season when it is extremely hot and you may finish playing in the snow."
The Bears started the preseason with 13 seniors but lost tight end Rico Moss with a torn Achilles.
"Fortunately that happened early enough that we could make some adjustments," he said. "The difference in programs at our level and those at LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas and those FBS schools is we can only have 90 players in preseason camp compared to 105 for those schools. Having 15 fewer over a month’s time takes its tool because our lines are shorter for the reps and players get more reps and we have to be careful not to run our players in the dirt."
The Bears lost an All-America running back in Brent Grimes but Conque noted,
"From No. 1 to No. 4, we may be better at running back than we’ve been in some time," Conque said
Jackie Hinton Jr., Anthony Blackmon and Terence Bobo are the top three backs but true freshman Marcel Threat, described by the coach as a "Barry Sanders type," has worked him into the depth chart in the preseason and was slated to get a lot of work, along with the other backups, at Wednesday night’s short scrimmage before students and fans.
He said the football team has been in only group "in town, so to speak" in the preseason and now that school will begin Thursday, the players, particularly the young ones, face a transition.
"That’s why we’re giving them the day off Thursday to transition to students and get into the student-athlete mode," he said.
Three UCA players are from Faulkner County, wide receiver Isaiah Jackson from Conway, fullback Chris McKnight from Mayflower and fullback Jonathan Watson from Conway Christian, who will likely be redshirted.
"Isaiah is one of the best punt returners I’ve been around," he said.
"McKnight is one of our more physical players. I told our coaches that playing fullback here is like getting in a car wreck every day. You really have to like running into brick walls. But Chris understands his role."
UCA, 5-7 last season, lost its last five games and seven by a total of 23 points.
"As coaches, we’ve dissected and reflected on all aspects of last season; what we’ve done as a team overall is to bury it," he said.
"To look at things half full, in all seven games that we came up short, we gave ourselves a chance to win. That’s our objective in every game."
The Bears open the season Thursday, Sept. 2,, against Elizabeth City State.