A different kind of balling excited University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque in the weeks before the Bears began spring football practice.
"Forty-two of our football players were going out two or three weekends to play paintball," said Conque. "And I loved it."
It added color to the offseason.
It gave new meaning for "shooting the gap."
"The big thing is the players, of all classifications and positions, have to learn to work together and have each other’s back," Conque said. "They are doing this on their own. They are hanging together without prompting by the coaches. They are having fun together. They are learning how to play for each other and to like each other.
"In some years, we had players at different positions do things together and we’ve had team-building exercises in the offseason. But this is building chemistry without the coaching staff involved. It takes the message of team and builds on it."
Conque has seen talented teams at different institutions, including one of his most talented teams not that long ago, underachieve because a few missing chemical elements. Some players said all the right things in public but have personality conflicts and didn’t like each other behind the scenes. He and his staff have experienced the frustration of a team divided.
The past three years, the UCA staff have worked hard at developing a stronger bond.
What happened during what Conque has described as one of the best offseasons he has witnessed affirmed certain principles, necessary to take the program to another level, are starting to take hold.
He and his staff will get a bigger indication of how the chemistry is developing the next three weeks.
During the final throes of winter weather, spring drills continue in earnest.
UCA got in a few practices, mostly in shorts, pads and helmets, before taking off for Spring Break. Now, it’s the grind.
The Bears are now building toward their first major scrimmage Saturday afternoon. Another scrimmage will be held on April 6. The spring game will be April 13.
UCA has plenty of veterans and a posse of promosing redshirts from a 9-3 team that won a Southland Conference championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs before losing a hard-fought game to perennial power Georgia Southern.
"But every team is different," Conque said. "Now is when we start shaping the identity of this team."
Many of his players are getting a greater understanding of what it’s like to shoot at a moving target.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)