When the University of Central Arkansas football team reported for the first day of camp on Saturday, one of the first things to catch the players' eyes were the new banners hanging outside Estes Stadium, touting many of the program's accomplishments.
The quest to change those banners and make a second playoff straight run begins in earnest on Sunday when the Bears begin their fall practices in preparation for the 2012 season and the Sept. 1 opener at Ole Miss.
"There's a great energy in the building with all the guys getting here, going through the typical check-in process and getting ready to start practice for the season that's rapidly approaching," said coach Clint Conque. "Everybody's here and accounted for, we're 95 strong, and headed to camp. The attitudes seem to be good and we're ready to get to work."
However, Conque was disappointed after the first full practice Sunday.
"Unfortunately, a lackluster performance today," he tweeted. "Defense had some bright spots. Offensive leadership not present. Some young kids wilted under pressure."
Conque added, "The players have come in in high spirits, and I think they like the improvements we've made throughout the summer to both the interior and exterior of the stadium with the addition of the suites, banners, some new pictures hanging inside the stadium, some new paint, just a lot of overhauling. I think it always brings a little energy when you see some things that are fresh and new." Of all the improvements, one of the smaller ones may have made the biggest impact on initial reporting day.
"We added a Ping-Pong table to the player lounge area," Conque said. "That seems to be a hit. It's already gotten pretty spirited in there. I think the Ping-Pong table and the new Nike practice jerseys have them as excited as anything."
The coaching staff has crafted a different practice schedule from years past, opting to do away with two-a-day practices in favor of a more varied routine.
"After some research, we've decided to change our practice model a little bit," Conque said. "There will be no two-a-days, though there will be two practices where there will be a special teams practice in addition to the regular practice segment. But what we'll be doing is more along the lines of what the NFL instituted last season after their collective bargaining agreement. We'll have a lot more walk-throughs, video meetings, and more time in the strength and conditioning complex." The restructured approach comes with multiple objectives. "One, I think it will help our kids' mentality and team morale," Conque said. "Sometimes you get some negative morale when you start in right off the bat with six days of doubles. I think the absence of that mentally excites the players.
"Second, it gives us a real opportunity to get sharper, more exact, detailed practices. We can protect our legs better and have more recovery time, thus I expect tempo in those practices to be even better. The third thing is that you have to be real careful with the heat. The elements have got to be a consideration, and this allows us to better deal with that – we'll have more recovery time and can stay properly hydrated and things of that nature." That does come, however, with one caveat.
"Our team has to have the maturity level to handle it," Conque said. "If they do, we will move forward as planned. But we will have the ability to double up if necessary."
Tight end Austin Haywood, who transferred in from Oklahoma in the offseason, will no longer be with the team. Haywood was suspended at UCA for the majority of the offseason but was reinstated over the summer. "He has made the decision to not continue playing football," Conque said. "We had suspended him early, but he had been reinstated and was academically eligible. However, he has chosen to not continue his football career. We wish him all the best."
Running back Wesleigh Foster has been suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules.