THE SKINNY: The Bears left the Big Country of Montana last year with a big hunger after a second-round playoff loss to the Montana Grizzlies.
They want more. And with 14 starters and several major backups returning from a 9-4 NCAA FCS playoff team, the Bears again appear to be a strong contender in the Southland Conference and one of the top teams in FCS.
They are breaking in a new quarterback behind a young offensive line, but their defense appears as fast and as athletic, from front to back, as possibly any UCA defense in history. The kicking game is solid.
OFFENSE: Leading up to the season opener, junior Wynrick Smothers has proved himself as efficient as anyone in the UCA offense in Clint Conque’s 13 years. The Bears appear a solid three-deep at the position with Ryan Howard and Arkansas transfer Jacoby Walker as backups. The receiving corps, led by Dominique Croom, Jesse Grandy, Dezmin Lewis and Al Lasker, is solid and versatile. The backfield has four dynamic elements in veterans Jackie Hinton, Terence Bobo, Anthony Blackmon and newcomer Willie Matthews. "It’s as many playmakers as we’ve had," said quarterback coach Nathan Brown.
DEFENSE: Justin Williams, an NFL prospect, leads a deep and solid crew up front while Markeith Gaines appears ready to carry on a tradition of great defensive end. Seth Allison, Justin Heard and Rojae Jackson help form one of the best lienbacking corps in the league. Radarius Winston, who missed last season with an injury, is an all-conference prospect at free safety and leads a deep secondary with Jestin Love and Karl Brady as playmakers at quarterback.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Solid with place-kicker Eddie Carmara, punter Kevin Buford and return specialist Jesse Grandy.
KEY QUESTIONS: Can the injury-plagued Smothers complete a season and can his backups continue to mature? Can Corey Howard and Dominique Allen, solid veterans, lead a young offensive line?
YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW: The season opener against Ole Miss is UCA’s first game in history against a Southeastern Conference opponent ... UCA returns six of nine all-conference players from last season and two who made honorable mention ... The Bears are 5-0 on their striped field.
DON’T MISS: The Bears’ Sept. 22 home game against Sam Houston State, the defending national runner-up.
CONQUE SAYS: "The opener at Ole Miss is a logical progression for us as a major conference non-conference game in our sixth season. We’re ready to take the next step. It’s blank paper right now. It’s up to us to write the next chapter."
FROM THE PLAYERS’ MOUTHS: "This team has worked harder in the offseason than any I’ve been around," said linebacker Seth Allison ... "This is the hardest-working team I’ve been around; best summer we’ve had," said Allison. "After last year, we want more."