LITTLE ROCK — University of Central Arkansas football coach Steve Campbell stepped to the podium Monday and told the Little Rock Touchdown Club how his football team was stepping up.
Going into Saturday’s game against Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas, the Bears are tied for first in the Southland Conference with Sam Houston State, the No.1-ranked team in FCS. Both are 6-0 in the league.
At least six times during his presentation about how the Bears got to where they are, Campbell mentioned “guys stepping up.”
He started with the defense, which is No. 1 against the rush in the FCS and in the top five in tackles for loss. The Bears lost two starters on the defensive front, including All-American Jonathan Woodard, who was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Derek Floyd, an all-conference player.
Campbell noted that Samford, which handed the Bears their only defeat, gained 669 yards Saturday in a 59-41 loss to Mississippi State. Samford gained 250 against UCA.
“I learned a long team ago, building a football team is like baseball,” Campbell said. “In baseball, you start catcher, pitcher, center field. In football, it’s noseguard middle linebacker and free safety. Our defensive front is playing really, really well because several guys have stepped up.”
Campbell noted going into the season that the Bears were going to have to replace four starters in the offensive line. Then, they lost three more players to injury in preseason.
“So, we’re going in down seven because of the injuries,” he said. “And we’re leading the league in rushing yards and have given up only five sacks.”
He noted Dan Augustine, who was coaching the defensive line and special teams, resigned for personal reasons two days before preseason practice.
Larry Hart, a former All-American at UCA, was hired quickly to head the defensive line. “Larry and Tony Davis have done a tremendous job of coaching those young guys in the defensive line and that’s a story in itself.”
He re- told one key story behind the Bears’ victory over Arkansas State when the Bears, trailing 23-16, faced fourth and goal on the ASU 3 with 5:00 left.
UCA running back Antwon Wells is one of the few players Campbell has coached for five years. Campbell was head coach at Delta State for three years, and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (where a coach usually only has players for two years) for 10 years. In his sophomore year at MGCCC, Wells had a strong campaign until he tore an ACL at midseason.
“He came to me and said that he was going to have to have surgery to rebuild that knee, anyway, so what else can I do to hurt it? I told him I wasn’t a doctor but it sounds good to me.”
Campbell said the doctors cleared Wells to play and he played six weeks with a torn ACL. When Campbell got the UCA job, Wells was one of the first players he brought in.
Back to fourth and three against ASU.
“So, Wells cones to me and tells me, ‘Give me the ball. I will score or I will die trying,’” Campbell said.
Wells scored but the Bears missed the extra point and trailed 23-22.
“But this group never flinched,” Campbell said, noting quarterback Hayden Hildebrand led them down the field and passed to Brandon Cox for the winning touchdown in the final minute for a statement win.
“And ASU hasn’t lost since and has beaten some good teams,” Campbell said. “So, I’m proud, more than anything else, of the obstacles we have overcome.”