With a posse of experienced players returning from a Southland Conference co-championship team, Central Arkansas seems to have plenty of firepower for another return to the NCAA FCS playoffs.
“I really like this team and what is possible for them to accomplish,” said UCA coach Clint Conque, whose Bears will open the season Thursday night at home, against the University of Incarnate Word. “There are high expectations for this team, both within and without the program. We want those players to embrace those expectations.
“We have good frontline leadership and a lot of depth on defense.”
The offense will be built around the multi-faceted talents of senior quarterback Wynrick Smothers, the Offensive Player of the Year in the Southland Conference last season in his first year as a starter.
“Wynrick has become the face of our program and is a great piece to build around,” said Conque.
The Bears, who begin the season ranked sixth and seventh in Football Championship Subdivision national polls, are picked second in the Southland Conference. They will learn a lot more about themselves during a trip to the Pac-12’s University of Colorado on Sept. 7.
Smothers had one of the most successful years of any Central Arkansas quarterback in history last season, passing for 3,103 yards and 31 touchdowns with a completion percentage of 64.9 percent. He rushed for another 449 yards and three touchdowns.
“One of Wynrick’s greatest assets is he can beat you with his feet,” Conque said. “The difference this year is his leadership may have to buy some time for the young backs and receivers. Last year, the backs and receivers gave him some time to develop into his role. It’s nice to have an offense with a proven leader at quarterback.”
And strong backups. Taylor Reed, a University of Arkansas transfer, has started at the University of Memphis and Ryan Howard is a veteran of the offense.
The big-play player in the receiving corps is 6-4, 206-pound junior Dezmin Lewis, who caught 83 passes for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns last season and has proven himself as a game-breaking player. Expect strong support to come from Courtney Whitehead. freshman Jatavious Wilson, Damian Watts and Justin Burdette.
None of the top three backs, Willie Matthews, Blake Veasley or Oklahoma transfer Danzel Williams, had significant experience as a frontline player at UCA. The first unit offensive line of Alec Willis, CJ Simon, Kyle Stouffer, DJ Appe and Cole Caruthers could develop into a good one. Depth is a question there.
“Generally throughout spring and preseason, it was playing fast and at a high level,” Conque said. “There is experienced and depth.”
The front had size and is packed with players who have the potential to dominate the line of scrimmage in defensive ends Jonathan Woodard and Markeith Gaines (pass-rushing specialists who can make each other better), and linemen Matt Hornbuckle, DJ Willis and TJ Randall.
Middle linebacker Justin Heard, the leading tackler last season, heads one of the deepest and possible most talented linebacker corps in recent history. It says a lot that verteran outside linebackers Blake Childress, Ricky Wyatt and Zach Bush were having a back-and-forth battle for a starting position deep into fall camp. The secondary, led by senior Jestin Love, a vocal player and big-play maker. is rich in veterans Marcus Peters, Dominque Brown, Josh Jones, Dillon Winfrey and Karl Brady.
Eddie Camara established himself as one of the SLC’s bet place-kickers last season and Kirby O’Meara is an experienced long snapper. The Bears began fall camp with a strong pool of potential game-breaking return specialists. Jonathan Harrison is the new punter and is unproven.
Can the Bears find a game-breaking running back and present a running game that add a vital touch of versatility to the offense?
YOU MAY NOT KNOW
Although know for their slow starts, the Bears outscored their opponents 233-156, in the first half last season. They outscored them 185-108, the second half ... Backup quarterback Taylor Reed, who has played both at Memphis and a spring at Arkansas, is playing for his fifth coaching staff in four years (two at Memphis, two at Arkansas and one at UCA) ... Wynrick Smothers is a broadcast journalism major who interned at KATV (Channel 7, Little Rock) last season.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
Freshman wide receiver Jatavious Wilson will remind fans of Jesse Grandy, a dangerous receiver and return specialist last season, in both size and quickness. “We need to get him six to eight touches a game in various ways,” Conque said.