Efforts by three University of Central Arkansas players — a senior, a graduate student and a true freshman — are emblematic of why the Bears are playing for an outright conference championship Saturday night.
In the 31-14 victory over Southeastern Louisiana, wide receiver Jesse Grandy caught three passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns. One of those passes went for no gain. In the last four games, Grandy has 439 receiving yards and four touchdowns, a good season for many.
"The last five weeks, he’s played at another level," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "Last year, when he got more comfortable in the offense, he took his game to a different level."
After UCA joined the Southland Conference, Conque and his staff quickly learned they were going to have to recruit and develop receivers who could beat man coverage. Those recruiting efforts are bearing fruit this season as the Bears are countering man coverage better than any time in their recent history.
"You have to go against man coverage in our league every week because of the type of athletes the teams in this league attract in Louisiana and Texas," Conque said. "Not many high school teams in Arkansas play man coverage, but there are plenty of Louisiana and Texas because of the abundance of athletes. You have to adjust to your competition. You can get length and size, but there is no way you can coach speed. And Grandy is probably the most complete receiver we’ve had here."
The graduate student, linebacker Seth Allison (the bell cow of the defense last year) intercepted two passes and had seven solo tackles in the victory over Southeastern. He is the Bears’ leading tackler this season.
"But until this game, we haven’t seen the old Seth and his ability to impact a game like he did last year," Conque said. "He was the old Seth Saturday night."
Freshman Dillon Winfrey, who was a standout running back, defensive back and kick returner at Bryant last year, has earned a regular spot in the second and had 9.5 tackles and broke up three passes (one a magnificent play in the end zone) Saturday night.
He’s 5-foot-8, 174 pounds with great instincts. Two inches taller, and he’s be playing for an FBS team.
"He attacks the ball and is a very sound tackler," Conque said. "And a big thing is he takes coaching so well. He’s very similar to Tristan Jackson (former star cornerback who has been successful in Canadian Football.
Often, on a championship drive, a team has to have its seniors play well and lead by example and a young player to pop up and unexpectedly become a lynch pin.
That often results in come-from-behind victories and overcoming road challenges.
Three reasons why a championship trophy should be in Estes Stadium for the taking Saturday night.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)