University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque saw growth during the 15 practices of spring football.
During those spring practices, the Bears went through 450 live snaps in three major scrimmages and other practices.
“That’s a lot of live snaps, but our young kids needed that,” said Conque Tuesday after he had evaluated the video from the climactic Purple-Gray game. “The big thing is we did all that live work with no major injuries and it was a physical spring. We came out of the spring game with not any significant bumps and bruises.
“A lot of young players showed definite growth. Some of our older kids took a step forward as well.”
In the spring game, in which the Purple defeated the Gray, 17-7, in a split-squad format, Conque said what he had grown to expect from his defenders.
“The defense had the upper hand in the spring game, no question,” he said. “That was good to see because in the second scrimmage, our offense was very productive so this was an opportunity for the defense to come back.
“The defense was outstanding all spring, but we have more scholarship players on defense and more experience there. We’ve got depth and some young depth and those guys responded. When you split a squad, you split the talent at the skill positions. That’s never good for timing, consistency and communication, particularly on offense.”
He was disappointed in two fumbles lost during center-quarterback exchanges and some dropped passes by the running back, “things we have not seen in three or four springs. “I think the offensive units on both sides lost focus toward the end.”
Individually, he said he was pleased with two transfer wide receivers, 6-foot-3, 215-pound Justin Burdette (Southern Mississippi) and 6-2, 225-pound Courtney Whitehead (Air Force).
“Those two made plays in every scrimmage,” Conque said. “I saw growth in Desmond Smith there. Damien Watts had a good spring and switching Jacoby Walker to wide receiver was a positive move. That gives us another big body at wide receiver who plays physical. He also gives us a quarterback in the wildcat formation.”
The UCA coaches were looking for two running backs to emerge during the spring to replace the three the Bears lost and feel good about how Willie Matthews, the most experienced back who has limited experience, and Blake Veasley, a transfer from the University of Memphis, emerged.
Quarterback Wynrick Smothers completed 52 of 71 passes (73 percent) in three three scrimmage for 562 yards, six touchdowns, one interception.
“And he can play better,” said Conque, who noted Smothers will have four wisdom teeth removed soon.
One of the bright spots of the spring with the emergence of some young players on the front end and back end of the defense.
Redshirt freshman Aum’Arie Wallace has stepped into a gap behind Radarius Winston at an outside linebacker post vacated by Seth Allison. Derek Floyd, Sophmore Derek Floyd came on strong at defensive end for senior Markeith Gaines, who missed spring receovering form an injury. Conque said junior defensive end Parker Carpenter and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Bailey McIver came also came on strong to complement veterans Jonathan Woodard, T.J. Randall and Matt Hornbuckle on the interior. Redshirt freshman Dawson Hadnot was having a good spring before an injury.
“We’re a little thin on the interior but we have three freshman defensive lineman coming in who we will place on the fast track,” Conque said.
Newcomer John Harrison punted for a 40-yard average in the scrimmages and Conque said he feels confident he’s an able replacement for Kevin Buford. Backup quarterback Ryan Howard proved himself as an able holder. Jestin Love will be No. 1` going into fall camp as a punter returner while Dillon Winfrey and Courtney Whitehead are the main kickoff returners.
“I told the team we are likely to be picked high in the (Southland) Conference and probably in the Top 15 in the nation, but a lot of that is on the backs of guys who are not here,” Conque said. “We’ve got to continue pushing because we’re going to have some outside expectations we haven’t had to deal with for awhile.”
(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 sports news to firstname.lastname@example.org)