Prior to Saturday’s 37-25 win over Eastern Kentucky, the Central Arkansas Bears honored 18 seniors who may or may not be returning next season.
With the unique situation around the 2020 season, seniors can retain a year of eligibility because of COVID.
While the jury may still be out on who is planning to return and who will move on, no can deny their accomplishments.
“You look up and down this group of guys and you see records, Senior Bowl invites, you see championships, you see playoff appearances,” UCA head football coach Nathan Brown said.
But, it’s not just the on the field accomplishments that Brown is excited about.
“That’s what may be the most impressive thing is out of all the championships and rings they’ve won and playoff appearances, out of the 18 or 19 guys we honored today, I think 14 or 15 already have degrees in their pocket,” he said. “I’m sure another four or five guys will graduate in December. They’ll all have a degree in May. That’s what’s so fun is to see what they’re going to do in the next step of their life. If they come back, they’ll get to work on their masters or a secondary degree and that is fun to be a part of.”
This class of seniors has won 30 games over three seasons, two Southland Conference championships and two FCS Playoff appearances.
Part of the reason this group has been so successful is they’ve meshed well together no matter their background.
“It’s just a melting pot of student-athletes that have come together and have had one of the best four- to five- year stretches in the Division I era,” Brown said. “We got a chance to honor them tonight. I am indebted to them with the way they’ve handled this program and kept the culture going that we’re trying to continue to build.”
Understandably, Brown said the 2020 culture was tough to maintain.
“It hasn’t been easy to keep the culture going in 2020,” he said. “It’s been an up and down year. It’s been tough and mentally taxing. We couldn’t have done it without these seniors and that’s what I wanted to do tonight. A lot of these will be back. A lot of these guys have the opportunity to come back or play elsewhere. They might move on with their life. There’s going to be five or six of them that will move on with their life. I wanted to honor all of them at once because we wouldn’t be here without them.”
This group of seniors along with the other student-athletes on the team have set out and played a tougher schedule than UCA has seen this season and have largely succeeded.
There were hiccups, but the Bears have been in every game they’ve played in up to this point with the possible exception coming against Arkansas State.
“Whether they choose to come back or we choose to have them back or whatever their next steps in life are, we want to honor all those guys and the way they have led us in this crazy year,” Brown said Nov. 11 in a Zoom interview. “If we didn’t have this group of seniors and the way they’ve reacted and responded in this COVID year, we wouldn’t be where we are as a football program and we wouldn’t be in game nine for the 2020 fall football season.”
Where these seniors will go and their plans is not the current focus as there is still one more game to play, but the coaches have kept it on their minds.
“The focus is on the season and what’s at hand, but the future is always in the back of our minds as coaches,” Brown said. “There’s been some discussion with select players and what they’re futures hold and what they’re thinking. For the most part, that will all be discussed when the season is over. We’ll talk with the seniors, whether it’s coming back here and playing or them moving on with life.
“They’re will be some that decide to move on in life and then there will be some that their best fit is somewhere else. They could continue and use their last year of eligibility somewhere else. There’s a lot of scenarios that are still to be had and some guys that have exhausted their eligibility and then getting that year back. The way we are choosing to honor those guys is they’re seniors in our program this year.”
One student-athlete that is not returning to the program is All-American cornerback Robert Rochell as he earned a Senior Bowl invite and is being heavily scouted for the NFL Draft.