(Editor's note: This is another in a position-by-position series on University of Central Arkansas football, from the players and assistant coaches' perspectives from post-spring interviews, as the Bears go into the summer).
By DAVID MCCOLLUM
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
AThe challenge of the University of Central Arkansas receiver corps this season may rest in the development of younger players and the maturity of junior Willie Landers.
Landers, a 6-foot-2, 206-pound junior, has been in on his share of big plays for UCA the past couple of years. He wants to be part of more of the little ones, particularly in practice.
"I need to be a better practice person," said Landers, the leading returning receiver with 44 receptions for 735 yards and seven touchdowns last season. "In games, I have a different kind of attitude. I saw I have to have the same mentality in practice as games. I've got to have the same motivation in practice."
"We grew a lot fundamentally during the spring," said receiver coach Jerry Mack. "But we've got to get better in the small things. We have to have a lot more attention to detail."
"I think we're deeper, more mature," Landers said. "I feel like our receivers need to be more dominant in games."
The receiving corps is a mix of veterans and younger players, both of whom saw action last year.
"We have a lot of people ready to step up," said Preston Echols, who caught seven passes for 23 yards in an injury-plaqued season last year. "I'm ready to play a lot more. We're all ready to make valuable and consistent leaps. I've got to get faster and stronger and bertter in fundamentals, the ins and outs of routs."
"We have skills and talent," said junior Darrius McNeal, who caught 23 passes for 177 yards during the 10-2 campaign. "It's a matter of finding chemistry and people stepping up. The chemistry is just a matter of being around each other. It's harder playing with new guys who don't completely understand the system. As receivers, I can see us getting better and better. We have a number of guys who can step up and we've got to be ready to step up. Even the backups know we have to step up if one goes down."
"We have guys who can make plays and I feel a lot better with my experience," said James Lovett, one of the Bears' fastest receivers who saw significant action in his first year last year, catching 35 balls for 363 yards and three touchdowns. "We have certain guys pushing other guys. I need to get stronger and faster. I was still learning the offense last year. I want to be more of an impact player. But playing with (quarterback) Nathan Brown made things a lot easier. Playing with Nate was like clockwork. It takes time.
"We have guys who can make plays, and I feel a lot better with my experience. We have certain guys pushing other guys."
The Bears got a boost in the spring when Brandon Kennemer, a steady receiver for two years who was sidelined last year with an injury, returned to the lineup and showed he can again be productive.
Two of the guys pushing for regular roles are sophomores T.J. Adams and Conway's Isaiah Jackson, who had their moments last season both as receivers and on special teams.
"I think we're going to be very productive as receivers," Adams said. "We all are have athletic ability out of this world. So many receivers, there are a lot of threats available."
But there's a learning curve.
"The speed is a lot different in college," said Adams. "Everything is fast. It was a transition from a small high school (Beckville, Texas) to a Division I school. I enjoyed it and I love trying to compete and keeping up with the speed of the game. Getting to play in my first year was the best thing ever."
For Jackson (5-11, 170), it's a matter of building up his small frame to play on a regular basis.
"I've got to get bigger," he said. "I couldn't keep my weight up last year. I've got to be stronger. Last year, I was in any way we could use the speed sweep. I think I can bring speed to the field. I wold like to be an every down guy. "
Jackson is not the only receiver working on strength and durability.
"I've got to make sure my knees are strong," Echols said. I've had three different surgeries since high school. I want to make it through the season. This is the first time I've made it through spring without getting hurt."
"I'm working on my upper-body strength and focus," Landers said. "Every year I've been hurt. I've got to be a stronger person. When things get tough, I don't want to break down toward the end of the year like the last two seasons."
The group is optimistic about the offense, which had its ups and downs during the spring.
"We spread the ball around in our system," Mack said. "I think all of our receivers understand that they'll all get a chance to touch the football."
"I feel like we are growing on offense," Echols said. "We lost some good parts of our offense, but I think it gives us more room to grow. There are a variety of solutions to different problems. There isn't one person to bail us out. A lot of things are gonna happen. People will make plays with names people are not used to hearing."
"The biggest strength of this group is the work ethic," Mack said. "In the spring, these guys came prepared each and every day. They carried a workman's attitude to practice. It's a fun group to coach because of how hard they work."
"Chemistry will go down when nobody's watching," Landers said.
NEXT: Running backs and tight ends