The first day of spring football drills had an eerily similar development for the University of Central Arkansas to the first day of fall drills last season.
During the opening of fall drills, wide receiver Willie Landers went down with a season-ending knee injury. It was a shorts, non-pads workout. Monday, during a shorts workout, wide receiver Dominique Croom (who stepped in as a freshman to replace Landers in some packages) went down with a knee injury. The long-term prognosis is good but he’ll miss the rest of spring.
“It’s a blow because Willie is being held out of contact drills,” said UCA coach Clint Conque. “But he’s moving around and gaining confidence every day.”
That negative jolt helped bring on the most positive development of the first week of spring practice for the Bears. Two receivers, Joe Harris and T.J. Adams, who have been in the program for awhile and needed to make significant progresss during the spring are two of the bright spots.
“Joe Harris (6-foot-5) has taken his game to another level; he’s one of our fastest players (4.48 40),” Conque said. “He’s taken advantage of the opportunity with Willie and Dominque out. And T.J. is having a good spring. We know what Willie’s capabilities are and Dominque proved himself after he was thrown into the lineup last year as a freshmen. If Joe and T.J. continue to develop and make plays at outside receiver in their place, that position could be a real strength for us.”
After their first real contact work Friday, the Bears broke for spring break, which will separate the spring into two distinct parts.
Spring drills are usually disjointed. Some players use the spring to recover from injury or surgery. The frontline players recovering from injury receive limited work. All hands are not always on deck for practices because of classes, particularly labs.
In addition to hands-on work with his team, Conque is interviewing coaches for two vacancies on his staff, a linebacker coach (to replace Jordan Malone) and an offensive assistant (to replace Zak Clark). That assistant will work with the tight ends.
As expected the first week, there were a lot of mistakes. Evaluation that first week concerned attitude and effort.
Defensive veterans Markell Carter, Trey Lippe and Tok Opeloye have started quickly.
“And I’ve been very impressed by our young secondary,” Conque said. “We’re going to be very athletic on the back end. They seem to be comprehending the majority of our schemes.”
“Nathan Dick had an outstanding offseason,” Conque said. “He’s better right now than at any part of last year. Wynrick Smothers (redshirt freshman) is doing well in most situations. He needs to be better aware of situations and make good decisions all the time. Both of them are picking up things as far as basic operations, play-calling and signaling and communication and identification. We’re playing at four different tempos and we have to be sound in the operations of all of them. Right now, our defense is very limited as far as sets and what we’re doing. That’s going to change and the identification issues will increase.”
Conque said running backs Terrence Bobo and Jackie Hinton have started fast and “I think that position has a chance to be a strength for us,” Conque said.
Wide receiver Isaiah Jackson of Conway has increased his weight to 185 pounds and runs a 4.5 with a 39-inch vertical leap, which Conque said was outstanding. “Now, he needs to get more comfortable with the added weight. He needed the extra weight,” Conque said.
The Bears’ receiving corps was further depleted when wide receiver Tauno Vannucci, who was redshirted last season, left the team to pursue other interests.
After taking next week off, the Bears will gradually get back into the flow of things the next week.
The spring game is scheduled for April 16 although what that will look like is in flux, particularly because an injury-decimated defensive line situation for spring. All the missing defensive linemen are expected to be back by fall plus UCA signed six defensive linemen.
“Help is on the way,” Conque said. “What we do about the spring game will depend on what develops with injuries the rest of spring. But we will do something.”
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)