(This is the final installment of a position-by-position series on UCA football, from the perspective of players and coaches after post-spring interviews, as the Bears head into the summer):
BY DAVID MCCOLLUM
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
Last season, the University of Central Arkansas had only eight punts returned against it for 25 yards (3.1 average). That put the Bears among the national leaders in any classification.
And it's a great source of pride for both punter Jonathan Beard and special teams coordinator Brian Early.
"I feel if if our average is not up there as far as limiting returns, we're not getting the job done as a punting team," said Beard, a senior. "Eight punts returned for 25 yards last year -- that's a whole punting unit doing its job. A punt doesn't have to be a negative thing. If we can pin them down and get field position, it can lead to a score, particularly with the kind of defense we have. But it's a whole unit working together."
"We are trying to develop the attitude that we need to win games with special teams," said Early. "At the same time, you try not to lose game with special teams."
All UCA players get a look on various special teams, punting and kickoff. Those units represent some of the best chances young players get to play and make a contribution and one of the best ways to make the traveling squad.
"I like it because I'm a defensive coach but I get a chance to coach the offensive kids on special teams," Early said. "You have offensive kids and defensive kids playing side by side. Not any other place on the football field do you see this."
Bear punted 33 times for a 40.8-yard average last season. In addition to almost no return yardage, he put 11 inside the 20 and had nine fair caught.
"The main thing is becoming more consistent," he said. "I think I'm pretty consistent but not as much as I would like to be. I had some productive times in the spring and some not-so-productive ones. The drop is pretty much the only thing. I've got to be more consistent with how I drop the ball on my foot."
Place-kicker Eddie Carmona, who joined the team during the summer last season, was 13 of 19 on field goals, with the longest of 47 yards. The junior from Charleston, who had not played in a couple of years, started fast and hit a slump in midseason before finishing more consistently. He handled both placements and kickoffs.
"I lost some confidence after I missed," he said. "I was not feeling good. It was really rough.It was something like I didn't feel good with what I was doing. I'd have a bad kick and I'd keep looking at it. I hadn't played for two years and I didn't go through offseason and I started getting tired. It bothered me. Everything came together in the middle of the season."
"Eddie just need more conditioning and more and more practice," Early said. "He works hard and it shows in his kicking."
Carmona considers himself not just a specialist but part of a unit. He takes pride that he made two solo tackles on kickoff returns last season, possibly saving touchdowns.
"I'm the safety guy if there's a leak," he said. "I'm the last guy to make a tackle and I like to do that. I love special teams and working with all those guys."
Anthony Gambles, one of the most sure-handed of UCA players as a defensive back, returns as the primary punt returner.
T.J. Adams and Isaiah Jackson, two freshmen who were thrown into the fire early last season are set to handle kickoff returns. Both have speed and dynamic ability, which good give the Bears one of the most dangerous tandems in the Southland Conference.
"Special teams for in the first year was something to do for the team," said Adams, one of the fastest players on the team. "There are exciting opportunities on the kickoff teams. It's mostly an execution thing. But it's one of the most exciting plays in college football."
"T.J. is more of a straight-ahead guy who is really fast," Early said. "Isaiah has that ability to make defenders miss. He needs to improve ballhandling. He is more of a home run hitter."
"On kick returns, my vision seems so much bigger," Jackson said. "When I get to open space, I need to learn to use my speed."
"I don't want our special teams play to be just an event, something we do," Early said. "i want to be good at it. When young players come in, we try them all on special teams. But I tell the players that we don't want them on special teams if they want to be there."
"We have high expectations on our special teams," Carmona said. "We know if we keep working hard, we can be good as last year or better. I want to do better on the palcement of ball and the hang time and distance on kickoffs. But my job is half ofthe job. The other guys have to make the tackle."