Coming off their second consecutive NCAA Division I Playoff appearance and a Southland Conference championship, the University of Central Arkansas Bears hit the practice field on Friday for the first day of spring practice with confidence and a bit of a swagger.
The Bears, 9-3 last fall, will open spring drills at 3:45 Friday, and work again on Saturday and Sunday.
“We’re excited to get back on the field,’ said UCA coach Clint Conque, the winningest coach in UCA history with a 98-54 record. “We were very pleased with the offseason work we got done. We made some changes in our process and I thought the players adapted well. Now for us to get the things accomplished this spring that we want to get accomplished, they have to transition from the offseason program to the practice field.’
Experience should help that transition as the Bears return 15 starters and 45 lettermen. UCA should be particularly strong at quarterback, with the return of the SLC Offensive Player of the Year Wynrick Smothers, and on defense, with the SLC Freshman of the Year Jonathan Woodard leading a strong bunch of returnees.
“Defensively, I think we have a chance to be really good,’ said Conque. “We have a lot of experience, a lot of lettermen returning. And we were able to redshirt virtually an entire recruiting class on defense. We should be athletic and deep on that side of the ball.’
Conque mentioned Woodard, senior end Markeith Gaines and senior tackle Matt Hornbuckle up front, along with senior linebacker Justin Heard. Senior safety Radarius Winston is making the move to the outside linebacker position to fill the loss of All-SLC Seth Allison. The secondary also returns All-SLC Jestin Love and returning starters Dominique Brown, Marcus Peters, Karl Brady and Dillion Winfrey.
“I thin Justin Heard is poised to have a big all-conference type season,’ Conque said. “I think there will be a lot of competition at corner. In fact, I think this will be a highly competitive spring at virtually every position on defense. And not just the front-line positions, but also with the depth. There are a lot of talented football players over there that should make for an interesting spring.’
The specialty units will have to replace All-American return specialist Jesse Grandy and punter Kevin Buford.
“We will designate a significant amount of time to our kicking game in the spring,’ said Conque. “There will be open competition to fill Grandy’s spot in the return game. We have Eddie Camara back, an all-conference kicker, who I think can really build off his first two years here. He’s definitely gotten bigger and strong.
And we’ve added a junior college All-American punter in Jonathan Harrison (Northeast CC).We have to replace Seth Allison as our holder but we return both of our snap specialists in Kirby O’Meara and Parker Carpenter.’
Conque said the biggest question marks heading into spring are at running back, where three seniors are gone, and wide receivers, which lost two All-Conference players in Grandy and Dominique Croom.
“There are big shoes to fill at both receiver and running back,’ he said. “I think we are extremely talented at wide receiver, but somewhat inexperienced. That will be a work in progress throughout the spring. And I think Willie Matthews is ready to step up and take ownership and invest in being a starting running back in this conference.’
Junior Al Lasker returns to the recieving corps after a 10-game suspension last season, along with sophomore Dezmin Lewis, UCA’s third leading receiver in 2012. The Bears also added juco transfer Justin Burdette, a transfer from Southern Mississippi, to the mix at receiver. Courtney Whitehead also transferred from Air Force last year and sat out the season.
“We have some big targets out there with those guys,’ said Conque. “A lot of size and athletic ability. And we have to get some of the younger guys who haven’t played comfortable and confident in what we are trying to do.’
Conque said the Bears should be able to overcome the loss of All-American offensive lineman Corey Howard with depth and experience.
“We return eight or nine lettermen in the offensive line and I like the talent level there. I like the physical gains we’ve made there. We’re bigger and stronger. And I think they’ll be going against one of the top defenses in the league every day in practice, so I expect some spirited competition there.’
The attitude was good coming out of offseason workouts, according to Conque, and he wants it to stay that way.
“It’s very important that we stay humble and grounded,’ he said. “We’ve had a great deal of success here over the last several years, and that’s a very positive thing. But we’ve got a lot of work to do to get where we want to go and accomplish the things we want to accomplish.
“One of my favorite sayings goes, ‘The wind blows the hardest at the top of the mountain.’ We’ve earned the right to be in that position, but now we have to re-establish ourselves and create an indentity for this football team in 2013.”
The UCA coaching staff has made a few changes in the offseason. Veteran offensive coordinator Brooks Hollingsworth will be coaching tight ends, while third-year assistant Jeremy Hammock will take over the running backs. Secondary coach Kenny Wilhite has left the program to pursue other opportunities, according to Conque.