After one of the most successful seasons in school history in 2017, the University of Central Arkansas Bears open fall drills Saturday hoping to expand on that success.
The Bears finished 10-3 a year ago, with all 10 wins against NCAA Division I competition. UCA also won its first home FCS playoff game, beating Illinois State, 31-24, at First Security Field at Estes Stadium, before losing to perennial power Eastern Washington on the road in Round 2.
The Bears, runnerup to Sam Houston State in the Southland Conference standings with an 8-1 record, are picked second again in the SLC preseason poll and are ranked in the Top 25 in several preseason FCS polls.
""We’re looking forward to getting going," said UCA coach Steve Campbell. "It’s a week earlier than normal due to no more two-a-days. But what that does, it gives you a good five-week period before the first game. So you don’t have to cram everything into a short amount of time.
"And I think that will be good for keeping the kids healthy, keeping them fresh, player safety, for their attention span, the little injuries that come with fall camp, all those things.’
The Bears, who open the season on Sept. 2 at Kansas State of the Big 12, return 12 players who were named to the preseason All-SLC team.
"We’ve got a lot of holes to fill,’ said Campbell, "but we have a really good nucleus to build around. You love having your starting quarterback (senior Hayden Hildebrand) back. That’s always huge. And five offensive linemen who have started a substantial amount of games. We need some guys to step up receiver-wise, but we have some guys that are very capable. We have good numbers there, it’s just who is going to break out of the pack and be that go-to guy.
"Defensively, we have two of our three linebackers back (senior James Graves, junior Raphael Garner). Both of those guys have played a lot of football. Hopefully (sophomore) Roy Sutton will step up and be a big factor there. The D-line, that was a big part of our football team last year, the way those inside guys played. That’s two all-conference guys that are gone.
"(Redshirt freshman) Austin Norris, (senior) Javian Williams and (senior) Eric Jackson are going to have step into a new role. They are filling some big shoes, so that’s a tremendous challenge there. They all had good springs, but now it’s time to be the guy. Secondary-wise, we feel good about Tre (senior Tremon Smith), George Odum and Jaylon Lofton. On the other side, (sophomore) Juan Jackson has played and played well, so he’ll fill in at that boundary safety. And he’s getting a strong push from (redshirt freshman) Jackie Harvell.
"The corner, that’s a huge spot for us because we play a lot of bump-and-run, man-to-man. That’s what we do so somebody has got to step up at that corner. Tavion Garrison, Trai Mosley, Robert Rochell… there is still some competition going on to fill that spot.’
Campbell said filling the obvious holes will be the big early push for he and his coaching staff, which remains intact from last season.
"I want to see some guys step up,’ he said. "The guys who have played, they need to have an edge, they need to be hungry, because they are going to have to play at an even higher level. But there are some guys who are battling for playing time that need to jump into the picture. We need some of those guys to say, ‘Hey, I’m a guy. You pay attention to me and I can help this football team.’
"That’s at receiver and the D-line, and even at running back. We need someone to jump up and show us they can play."
Campbell also said the Bears will need some leaders to make their presence felt early.
"We lost Antwon Wells at running back,’ he said. "Antwon brought a lot of heart to our team. That’s what he did. We need to find out who is going to be that guy who brings the heart to this football team, on the practice field and in the game.’
"Opening with Kansas State definitely adds some urgency to what we are doing,’ said Campbell, whose Bears knocked off FBS Arkansas State last season in Jonesboro. "Because the one thing you do know about Kansas State is, they are not going to beat themselves. That’s been their MO since coach )Bill) Snyder has been there. We know how good they’re going to be. They are a very physical football team so you have to try to match that. They will test your manhood early. So we’ve got to be physically ready to match up. We have to work toward that from Day 1.’
The 2016 Bears put together an eight-game winning streak, beginning with their SLC opening win over Northwestern State. Campbell said that may or not have an influence on the upcoming season.
"Every year is a different year. You start over every year,’ he said. "Each year has its own personality, its only flavor. Each year has its own challenges. But the guys that were here last year can definitely build off what we did a year ago and learn from the experiences we went through last year. They can look back at the fact that at one point we won eight games in a row against Division I competition. Eastern Washington was really good football team and we jumped on those guys 14-0.
"We have the capability of doing something like that again this year, but that also puts a little more of a target on your back. Some of the teams you beat last year, they have a bad taste in their mouth when they think about you. So you’ve just got to be ready to play every week. Every year is a new year. There are definitely some things we learned from last year, but we don’t get to save any of those points from last year. Those things don’t carry over."
Major scrimmages are set for three Saturdays, Aug. 5, Aug. 12, Aug. 19.
Week 1 schedule
Friday: Report Day
Saturday: 9:45 a.m.
Sunday: 3 p.m.
Monday: 3:30 p.m.
Tuesday: 3:30 p.m.
Wednesday: 3:30 p.m.
Thursday - off
Friday: 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 5: 9:30 a.m.