By STEVE EAST
UCA SPORTS INFORMATION
When the University of Central Arkansas Bears open football practice today with one of the youngest and least-experienced teams they have had in the past decade under head coach Clint Conque.
The Bears lost 23 seniors, including six All-Southland Conference selections. Gone is a record-setting running back, a defensive end drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars and the team’s top three tacklers from 2009.
Despite that, or possibly because of that, head coach Clint Conque is excited about his 11th team at UCA.
"We are very much looking forward to getting started this weekend," said Conque, who lost his largest senior class (23) since coming to UCA. "I really like the attitude of this team. Although young and inexperienced in some areas, I am overall very pleased with the amount of work and dedication these young men have put in this summer.
"Strength coach Henry Briscoe has once again done fantastic work with these players this summer. They are anxious and ready to start the process and go through the paces of fall camp."
The Bears officially reported to campus Saturday, although the majority of players went through offseason workouts at UCA this summer. Practice for the newcomers begins at 3:45 p.m. today, with the veterans joining in at 4:40. UCA will continue that schedule through Friday, with the first scrimmage set for 4 p.m. Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Matt Williamson, beginning his fourth season at UCA, likes what he sees from his young defense.
"In my eyes, they aren’t young anymore," he said. "I think they are ready to go and will continue to get better and better every single day. That’s why I’m excited to watch them improve. We had a lot of success over the spring, and I think it will carry over to the fall.
"Expectations don’t change just because you’re a freshman or sophomore or junior. We’ve built a good nucleus of a defense over the last couple of years and my expectations are the same as they are every year. And those kids’ goals are the same. They’ve bought into it and want to continue to be really good on defense."
The Bears lost their top three tacklers, and four of the top five, but do return some experience, led by preseason All-American defensive end Markell Carter and senior cornerback Henry Minor.
"I know I am and our kids are excited to just get back out on the field again," said Williamson. "Obviously, they’ve been running and lifting, but now they get back to playing football and that’s exciting. Defensive guys like hitting or they wouldn’t be on defense. You lift and you run all summer but you don’t get to hit anybody. So when you get those pads back on, it’s fun to hear that popping again.
"I feel like I’ve been caged up in an office for the last three months and it feels good to get back out on the field. We have a bunch of good kids and good people. It’s going to be fun to watch these guys because they developed quite a bit in the spring and when we get to spend some more time with them, they are going to develop even more and get better and better."
Offensively, the Bears have some holes to fill but, according to co-offensive coordinator Brooks Hollingsworth, the key will be consistency.
"The biggest thing we are going to be emphasizing is, don’t kill yourself," said Hollingsworth, who also serves as offensive line coach. "Last year there wasn’t that much difference in us offensively from the year before, as far as numbers and yardage-wise. But there was production-wise, and the biggest problem was penalties. We have to play a lot smarter.
"Our red zone, we were 85 percent but only 61 percent of that was touchdowns. A lot of that had to do with penalties and killing ourselves. That’s a big emphasis with us, control what we can control and cut down on the penalties and the stupid things we did. There were way too many fourth quarters there where we didn’t finish."
The Bears will be replacing two first-team All-Southland Conference players (RB Brent Grimes, OL Lane Freiwald) and will also be debuting a new quarterback and several new players up front. The receiving corps should benefit from the return of senior Willie Landers, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Landers caught 44 passes for 735 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008.
"At receiver, the returning guys are going to be better than they were last year," Hollingworth said. "And we have to see what Willie is going to bring to the table. He’s going to have to go under fire pretty quickly so we can see where he’s at."
Junior Nathan Dick, the backup to Robbie Park a year ago, came out of the spring as the No. 1 quarterback. His competition will be redshirt freshman Wynrick Smothers and Arkansas transfer Jim Youngblood.
"We’ve seen some good things out of Nathan, and really all the quarterbacks," said Hollingsworth. "He had a good spring, and so did Wynrick. From all indications, what I’ve heard from receivers is, Nathan’s really come into his own. And so has Wynrick. His arm has gotten stronger. And Jim is kind of the unknown because we don’t know how much he’s going to know at the beginning."
UCA will play six home games this season, including to be broadcast on the Southland Conference Television Network. The UCA-Southeastern Louisiana game on Oct. 30, which is also Homecoming, will be shown on SLC TV, as well as conference road games at Stephen F. Austin (Oct. 16) and Texas State (Nov. 6).
The Bears will hold Photo/Media Day at 1:30 on Thursday, Aug. 19, at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.