As the Bears begin spring football practice Friday, University of Central Arkansas Clint Conque has already spotted buds that could blossom nicely in the fall.
The Bears return 15 starters and 45 lettermen from a 9-3 team that won the Southland Conference championship and reached the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs for the second straight year.
What puts extra zip in his step is what Conque has seen from both veteran and young players during the offseason.
“How hard both our assistant coaches and players have worked and have embraced some subtle changes in our program have really impressed me,” Conque said. “The players have pushed hard in the offseason. Our 2011 team, which made the playoffs, probably maxed out on its potential considering the injury and schedule. Last season, I think the players feel we left some meat on the bone last year and they have responded to that. We have worked as efficiently as we ever had in my 14 offseasons here.”
The changes have related to diet and training and include mandatory breakfast every day.
“And we as coaches have done the most thorough, schematic and statistical breakdown that we have ever done here,” Conque said. “Our assistant coaches put their egos on the sideline and looked at things very objectively. It was an exhaustive process to examine everything we do and see how we can be a little better. We are close (to becoming a national title contender). We know that. We are ready to take the next step. We have elevated our talent. Now, we think we have determined what we need to do to take the next step to be among those Mount Rushmore programs in our division.”
When the Bears take the field Friday afternoon, their offense will be led by a returning all-conference and All-American quarterback in Wynrick Smothers. The question there will be the battle for backup positions among Ryan Howard, Trey Taylor and Division II transfer Trey Schucker. Jacoby Walker, a backup quarterback last season, has been moved to wide receiver.
“I think Wynrick is ready to do some things to take himself to the next level,” Conque said. “When you have an experienced quarterback who is a proven leader, it allows you to go at a quicker pace.”
One major question mark is the Bears are missing 250 career catches at wide receiver in the departed Dominque Croom and Jesse Grandy.
“But I feel like we have the talent on campus at wide receiver that will give us depth and quality competition,” Conque said. “Many of our answers are already on campus; it’s a matter of some of them getting comfortable with what we are doing.”
Those include: Al Lasker, who is returning after a 10-game disciplinary suspension last season; Courtney Whitehead, a transfer from Air Force; junior college transfer Justin Burdette; redshirt freshman Desmond Smith; Walker and veterans Dezmin Lewis, Clay Murphy and Damian Watts.
It’s a different story at running back where junior Willie Matthews, who has had limited experience, is the only returning back with any experience.
“Willie is poised to take ownership and transition to a main back,” Conque said. “He can make the cuts and make the reads. The question is we had 62 balls caught by an offensive back last year. Willie needs to improve in that area, which is an important part of our offense. We need to find another guy who is now on campus. But we know help is on the way because we have recruited three very talented freshman backs. And across the college football landscape, running back is a position a freshman can come in and play immediately.”
The offensive line should be a strength as last year’s group returns virtually intact. “I’m excited about what we have returning in the offensive line, which came together the last part of last season. We’ve been very excited about our last two recruiting classes of linemen and we’re starting to see that potential come to fruition.”
The Bears return eight starters on defense. “What is really comfortable there and energizes me is we should be able to line up almost three deep in spring practice,” Conque said.
Leading the group of front are veterans Jonathan Woodard, a beast at 6-foot-2, 272 pounds; Matt Hornbuckle, Markeith Gaines, Justin Williams, Larry Duvall and T.J. Randall.
Radarius Winston, a safety from two seasons, will move to an outside linebacker post vacated by Seth Allison, who made a similar move from safety two years ago. He’ll complement a veteran linebacker corps that includes Rojae Jackson and Blake Childress.
Seniors Jestin Love and Karl Brady return to lead a deep secondary that got deeper with the addition of redshirt freshmen Kamane Thomas and Amari Wallace.
Conque thinks place-kicker Eddie Camara is poised for “an All-American year,” and one of the new recruits is a junior college All-American punter, Jonathan Harrison, 6-5, 200.
“I can’t say enough of the job (assistant) Dan Augustine has done with quality control of our kicking game,” Conque said. “We’ve gone from 86th overall in the nation (including punts, placekicks, return yardage and coverage) to 32nd last year. And we want to be in the top 20 this year. We’ve gone from marginal to good.”
As far as staff adjustments, Jerry Hammock has moved from tight ends coach to running backs while veteran Brooks Holliingsworth, the offensive coordinator who has coached offensive line most of his career, will move from running backs to coaching tight ends. Cornerback coach Kenny Wilhite has left the staff to pursue other professional opportunities, Conque said.
Gaines and Childress will be limited during the spring after recovering from surgery. Defensive tackle Eric Smith will miss the spring with shoulder surgery.
UCA will hold major scrimmages on Saturday, March 30, and Saturday, April 6, both at 3 p.m. The spring game will be at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 13.
“I’m very excited about getting started because everybody in our program seems to be ready to do what they need to do to take the next step,” Conque said.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at email@example.com or at 501-505-1235. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us sports news at firstname.lastname@example.org)