(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another in a position-by-position series on UCA football, from the perspectives of the players and assistant coaches from post-spring interviews, as the Bears go into the summer.).
BY DAVID MCCOLLUM
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
Five of the eight leading returning tacklers for the University of Central Arkansas from last season combined for 253 tackles, 16 for loss, three fumbles recoveries and seven interceptions.
It's not hard to understand why the UCA staff is not wary of having defensive backs Pieri Feazell, Derrick Boyd, Anthony Gambles, Phillip Johnson and Henry Minor heading the last line of defense.
It's one of the most athletic and most experienced secondaries the Bears have put on the field.
"There's a lot of experience and quite a bit of competition at most positions," said secondary coach Perry Eliano. "All of them are very hard-working and great athletes. You couldn't ask for a better group of guys to bring together. They are all competitors but they also like each other. There is little dissension. All the guys know that whether they are a starter or a backup guy, they will play in some capacity.
"What's also good about this group is I don't have to pull them together; I don't have to motivate them. I don't worry about them showing up."
"We've got some young guys coming in with some of the experienced guys who know what to do," said senior free safety Phillip Johnson. "We have each other's back. Anyone can play with anyone."
"Defensive backs are the last line of defense and we've got to make the save and make every play," said Henry Minor, a junior cornerback who had his most productive spring and has settled in at cornerback. "In the secondary, we're about two deep at every position. Everybody is capable of doing everything."
The leading tackler last season was senior strong safety Pierre Feazell, who had 68, five for loss.
"I've learned to be patience and trust fundamentals," he said. "The key is staying patient. The seniors we have in the backfield make me feel a whole lot safer. It makes my job a whole lot easier with the trust factor. It's a matter of trusting in ourselves and believing in our fundamentals."
The second-leading tackler was senior Derrick Boyd, who is set to alternate at safety with Feazell.
"We're returning a lot of guys and we will be two deep at every position," he said. "Our second string may be as good as the first in places.
Anthony Gambles, another senior, is the most experienced player in the secondary and has been a reliable playmaker at cornerback for most of his UCA career. He made 50 tackles last season and led the team in interceptions (three) and passes broken up (12).
He still says he has some things to work on.
"I want to make more plays," he said. "I can make plays and I want to make the big ones, the ones that count."
Also in the mix at cornerback is senior Jamie Hill and redshirt freshman Desmond Wilcox, both of whom had outstanding springs.
"We have great athleticism throughout the secondary," Eliano said. "They understand as a group they've got to make plays each and every week and there can't be a week we don't show up to make game-changing plays -- and some of those won't show up on the stat sheet."
The defensive backs seem to be more comfortable in UCA's defensive concept.
"We've got some young guys coming in with some of the experienced guys who know what to do," Johnson said. "We have each other's back. Anyone can play with anyone."
"We know more what each other can do on the field," said Gambles. "We have each other's back. We have good players in all spots."
"We're a lot older and more mature," said Boyd. "We understand more about the defense than we did last year. The defensive backs are more familiar with what the linebackers are doing and the linebackers are more familiar with what the defensive line is doing. The experience should help us make plays."
Boyd said he went through a learning curve last season, his first at UCA after transferring from East Mississippi Community College.
"Last year, I learned it takes more preparation than I thought," he said. "I see what it takes to be the type of player I want to be, to be able to make plays. I'm trying to take more pride every time I step on the field every day. It's a matter of winning every play, every huddle call if possible."
Minor, one of the most improved defenders, started his career as a running back.
"It has taken some time for me to learn the system and get used to hitting people every play instead of getting hit," he said. "I love it now. The biggest adjustment has been reading and tackling. You've got to combine your tackling with coverage, speed and hits."
The defensive backs have also been energized by Matt Williamson, their new defensive coordinator who been a ball of energy since replacing the retired Denzil Cox.
"For a coach, it makes players want to play more with his energy," Feazell said. "I've always been drawn to him because of the energy since he got here."
"We had a lot of respect for coach Cox," Boyd said. "Coach WIlliamson is a lot more emotional. It's a different atmosphere. He's brought new energy."
Gambles added, "Coach Williamson has so much energy you wonder where does it come from. Every turnover, he's running toward the end zone, he's jumping around When we see him hyped, it's better for us."
With their experience, the defensive backs seemed to have develop a higher level of pride.
"I know the defensive backs can give leadership," Johnson said. "UCA has been known for offense. We want to be known as a top defense too."
NEXT: Special teams