University of Central Arkansas linebacker Justin Heard, the leading returning tackler from last season and an all-conference performer, has been allowed to return to practice and has been reinstated to the Bears’ football team.
Heard, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound middle linebacker from Woodland, Ala., who has already graduated with a degree in sociology, is serving a three-game suspension concerning what UCA officials described as an error in judgment concerning his NCAA book scholarship that resulted in a minor NCAA rules violation.
Heard returned to practice this week and will be eligible to play again on Oct. 19 when the Bears travel to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Heard did not participate against Missouri State on Sept. 21 or McNeese State on Oct. 5.
UCA coach Clint Conque said Heard made a mistake concerning his book scholarship at the beginning of the semester and when UCA officials discovered the situation, he was immediately suspended indefinitely pending a school investigation.
“This university takes violations of any kind extremely seriously,” said Conque Wednesday in a prepared statement. “And upon completing the investigation, we made a recommendation to the Southland Conference and the NCAA. Both governing bodies agreed with our assessment of the situation and our penalty of a three-game suspension for the student-athlete.”
That’s following normal procedure concerning a secondary rules violation. A university does its investigation and determines a penalty and notifies the NCAA and its conference of the issues and whatever procedures are in place to prevent the violation from happening again. The athlete is suspended until the NCAA accepts the university’s enforcement procedure or determines further punitive measures are needed.
“Justin has been a vital part of our football program for five years; he’s a college graduate,” Conque said. “This was a serious error in judgment. He’s very remorseful. This is a learning opportunity for him, as well as the rest of our student-athletes, in football and our other 16 sports, moving forward in the future. We hope that with enhanced controls and processes in place, that we can prevent similar situations from happening again.
“Justin was very forthright throughout this situation; he has made complete restitution and has handled the entire matter in a very mature manner,” added Conque. “No one feels worse about the situation than he does.
“We welcome Justin back to practice this week and competition next week. He’s an all-conference performer and a leader for our defense who will give us a positive lift the remainder of the season. We look forward to Justin being a very integral part of our team upon his return to the lineup. I know his teammates will welcome him back.
“We now consider this a closed matter. We are putting this behind us and moving forward.”
The 20th-ranked Bears, with seven regular-season games remaining, host Nebraska-Kearney at 3 p.m. Saturday at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
(UCA Sports Information contributed to this report)