When the University of Central Arkansas Bears were sent to Statesboro, Ga., for their second-round NCAA FCS playoff game, linebacker Justin Heard easily got the most requests for tickets.

He lists his hometown as Woodland, Ala., right on the Georgia border.

“I was actually born in Georgia and have a lot of family in Georgia,” said the junior linebacker, who has successfully taken over this season at middle linebacker for Frank Newsome, an all-conference performer. “There will be a lot of my family at the game. This is the first time for some to see me play in person since this is the game closest to where they live.”

Heard could be in the spotlight a lot, playing a critical role in slowing down Georgia Southern’s triple-option attack, which is averaging almost 393 yards on the ground a game.

“In the triple option, you have to play your assignments,” he said. “If you don’t, things can turn into a TD very easily.”

He said GSU most resembles Sam Houston State, a team the Bears rallied to defeat in their first conference game.

“Even though that was early in the season, I think we will be able to carry over what we learned in that game,” Heard said. “The difference is Georgia Southern runs the triple option with the quarterback under center while Sam Houston does it from the shotgun. The main thing, particularly at middle linebacker, is you have to get your eyes in the right places. There’s an opportunity to make plays and you’ve got to make them. I think we have a good game plan; we just have to go execute it.”

One key to the UCA defense this season has been Heard making the transition from outside linebacker to the middle.

“I’ve learned so much more this year,” he said. “The middle linebacker is the leader on defense and he has to make a lot of calls. You have to know what everybody does on every play. That helps me play faster. There’s a comfort when you understand where everybody is supposed to be.”

He said UCA’s experience in the playoffs and losing the second-round game at Montana made the players want to get back.

“That game showed us the sense of urgency you have to have for playoff games,” he said. “I think it motivated us to get better in the offseason so we could get back. Experience breeds success.”
And with some significant come-from-behind victories on their resume, Heard detects something special about this UCA team, which goes into the playoff games with losses only to Ole Miss and Stephen F. Austin.

“We don’t give up,’ he said. “It’s that sense that we’re not gonna lose. Even the games we lost, we thought we should have won those games. That mentality to not lose separates this team from teams I’ve been on before.”