As the Bears prepare to open the season Thursday night, University of Central Arkansas football coach Clint Conque is excited about both his veterans and one of the most promising groups of newcomers in years.

Conque, who is entering his 12th season, told Bearbackers on Monday that six true freshmen could be on the two-deep when UCA opens the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Henderson State at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.

Among the freshmen who will be part of the rotation is wide receiver Dezmin Lewis.

"He has the potential to be the best wide receiver I’ve ever coached here," said Conque during the first Bearbacker luncheon of the season at the new off-campus site at Beef O’Brady’s in the Conway Towne Center. "If you’ve watched the University of Arkansas play, Dezmin is a Greg Childs type of receiver. I don’t think we can keep him off the field at this point."

Conque also said the Bears are as deep at the wide receiver position as they’ve been in some time.

"And we’re probably as talented there as we have ever been," he said, noting there could be eight or nine different players in the rotations. "I’m not sure our second group couldn’t start and we probably wouldn’t lose a beat."

Conque said that because of the deep threats of Jesse Grandy, Al Lasker and Lewis on the receiving corps, the Bears should have more big-play ability in the passing game.

"We should be able to vertically push the ball downfield," he said. "We’re still a West Coast type of offense and we want to be balanced and we’ll use a lot of screens and dinks, but we have the potential for more big plays."

Conque said he’s hoping for another solid defense that is stingy.

"We feel we have changed the culture about how we play defense," Conque said. "The first seven years I was here, we had a high-octane offense and we were scoring at a high rate and just trying to outscore people. I got wiser and determined if we are gonna win championships, we’ve got to stop people. And we’ve led the Southland Conference in scoring defense three of the last four years."

The Bears have 16 returning starters instead of 17 because of a summer injury to safety Radarius Winston, which will sideline him for the season. Conque said another true freshman, Bryce French, has helped fill the gap and will contend for a starting position. 

"He’s already beat out a couple of returning players," Conque said.

He said the UCA staff has spent more time on the kicking game and special teams this preseason than at any time in his tenure.

That’s because, with the exception of veteran kick returner Isaiah Jackson, the Bears have completely new personnel in placekicker Eddie Carmara, punter-kickoff specialist Kevin Buford, deep snapper Parker Carpenter, holder Seth Allison and Grandy, who will return kickoffs and punts.

"We extremely talented in the kicking game," he said. "Our punter, when he hits it, is pretty good. When we get the snap and the hold down, our placekicker is good."

He told supporters that, during preseason camp, he was encouraged by the efforts of the young offensive and defensive linemen; some of those are 6-foot-7, 6-5, 6-4 and 6-1 across the front.

"Our linemen look more like we want our linemen to look like and they can run," he said.

THURSDAY’S GAME: Tailgating for Thursday night’s game will begin at 4 p.m. Boxes will be set up at the stadium gates to take food and supply donation for Soul Food Mission, which recently burned.

FUTURE  LUNCHEONS: 

There will be no luncheon Monday, Sept. 5 (Labor Day). The weekly luncheons will resume, Monday, Sept. 12, and continue throughout the remainder of the season at Beef O’Brady’s. A free bus will leave from the UCA campus at 11:30 a.m. and will return immediately after the luncheon, about 12:45 p.m.