(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of a review of UCA’s 2012 football season from the perspective of head coach Clint Conque. The second part will appear in Monday’s editions)
Just a stone’s throw from The Grove, a popular tailgating and watering hole for Ole Miss football games, University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque saw some seeds of success start to sprout this season.
Playing their first Southeastern Conference opponent in history, the Bears quietened a large crowd at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, leading at the half in their season-opener before the Rebels pulled away the second half.
"I felt then we might have something special," Conque said as reflected on a 9-3 season that resulted in a Southland Conference chammpionship and the team’s second straight NCAA FCS playoff berth. "Ole Miss ended up having a pretty good team and is going to a bowl game. And we left that game thinking we should have won."
What Conque saw on the field that night in Oxford, Miss., was spunk and lots of it.
It carried over to a season in which the Bears came from behind in dramatic fashion to defeat Sam Houston State, the defending national runner-up, and perennial power McNeese State. Sam Houston again reached the national semifinals.
A last-minute comeback attempt against Georgia Southern in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs ended when a replay official overturned a call and ruled the Bears had lost a fumble.
"This team was strong-willed," Conque said. "It was one of the most competitive, never-say-die groups I’ve ever been associated with.
"It took a reversal of a call to finally end things. When that happened, you could see our guys just looking around at each other saying, ‘Is that it’? We had more obstacles to navigate than in some years. I think we pushed the right buttons as far as personnel, practice preparation and strength training and the kids responded."
It started with junior quarterback Wynrick Smothers, who had seen limited action in two injury-plagued seasons. On the way to becoming one of the most efficient and successful quarterbacks in school history, he surged to the top of several school offensive categories and was Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
"You could see glimpses of what Wynrick could do in previous years," Conque said. "You could seen the maturation and ownership in his development during the offseason and spring and that carried over into the season. By his film study, he took command of what he needed to do."
Along with Smothers, Conque praised the maturity and leadership of several players across the board.
"Jackie Hinton’s (running back) last few games were some of his best; he ran as hard and physical as he ever has," Conque said. "Wynrick and Jackie played behind an ever-evolving offensive line, where we had lost four fifth-year seniors. Smothers and Hinton could have gotten very frustrated but they showed great leadership and were encouraging while Bill Best (offensive line coach) pulled that group together.
"The last five games we presented a more productive and efficient run game. It’s probably the most talented group of young linemen we’ve had, but they had to have time to develop."
Another key piece of the puzzle was the development of a receiving corps led by Dominique Croom, Jesse Grandy and Dezmin Lewis, all of whom had more than 50 receptions and made some spectacular plays. Lewis recovered an onside kick that led to the victory over McNeese while Grandy was one of the most dangerous return specialists in FCS.
"We started the season with an new quarterback and having lost one of the deepest receiving corps I have ever coached," Conque said. "We’ve had some great receivers here and good receiving groups through the years. But as far as overall ability and contributions in the kicking game and the whole package, that trio of Croom, Lewis and Grandy was arguably the best in school history and that’s saying a lot."
Conque also had praise for the defense.
"Justin Heard (linebacker) provided great leadership," Conque said. "He moved to a new position (middle linebacker), got bigger and we didn’t miss a beat in the middle. He provided intangibles championship teams have to have. I was impressed with the maturation of Jestin Love (defensive back). He became more team-oriented and disciplined in our scheme. Getting Radarius Winston (safety) back from an injury was huge. He providing a calming presence and stability on the back in. He’s probably not gonna go down as one of the greatest defensive backs in school history, but I’d go to battle any day with that young man."
UCA’s special teams were the best during Conque’s tenure.
"We went from the bottom 30 to the top 30 in the nation with our kicking game," he said. "Eddie Camara had one of the greatest years as a placekicker in school history. Kevin Buford had his career-best year as a punter. Our return and coverage units were the best they’ve been in years. Dan Augustine, who was in charge of our special teams, set the tempo and improving this area was a huge emphasis coming out of our summer meetings. We demanded more accountability in this area."
And as typical in any championship season, there were surprises. Defensive lineman Jonathan Woodard, a redshirt freshmen, became the Freshmen of the Year in the SLC, and true freshman Dillon Winfrey became a starter in midseason and "gave a real lift to our defense as far as tackling ability and a playmaker."
For next season, the Bears return 16 starters, 45 lettermen and eight of the top 11 statistical leaders on defense.
"I feel real good about the direction we are going and how we are developing competition and depth," Conque said.
Part II of the series can be viewed here: