One of the first tasks for University of Central Arkansas coach Steve Campbell after taking over the head coaching post was selling the players on his philosophy and his new staff.
“I think the key is building relationships as much as X’s and O’s,” said Campbell, whose team opens Saturday in Lubbock against Texas Tech, probably the toughest season-opener in school history. “We had a good offseason. Our kids came in in good shape and ready to work. We have a solid group of seniors and playmakers on both sides of the ball.”
In implementing his version of the spread offense, Campbell hopes to provide a renewed emphasis on the running game.
“I think the game starts up front on both sides of the ball,” he said. “You have to run the football and stop the run.”
He has placed an emphasis on better efficiency on first and third downs.
“If you put yourself behind the chains on first down, you’re not as able to play fast and we want to play fast,” he said.
Senior Ryan Howard and junior Taylor Reed, who shared the quarterback duties last season after Wynrick Smothers sustained a season-ending injury at midseason, were efficient and have strong abilities to manage a game and generate explosive plays.
Redshirt freshman Hayden Hildebrand has worked himself into the mix.
“We have three quarterbacks we can win a championship with,” said offensive coordinator Nathan Brown. “It’s more like 1A, 1B and 1C.”
The Bears have the best quality depth at running back than in years. The leading returning rusher is Matthews, a senior, who had a modest 572-yard total last season after injuries riddled the backfield.
He came on strong in the spring and late summer. There is plenty of depth with sophomore Blake Veasley, sophomore Kelton Warren, redshirt freshman Damian Daniels and redshirt freshman Jeff Anderson of Conway. Senior Joe Carmical and junior Justin Dickey have emerged at a Y back, a hybrid fullback-receiver position.
UCA will operate behind a veteran offensive line, led by seniors Cole Caruthers, C.J. Simon and juniors Kyle Stouffer. Alec Willis and D.J. Appe.
The strength of the offense rests in the receiving corps with an assortment of big playmakers led by senior Dezmin Lewis, who caught 50 passes last season. Damien Watts, Jatavious Wilson, Desmond Smith, Courtney Whitehead and Clay Murphy give the Bears an assortment of short- and long-yardage threats.
Junior Jonathan Woodard, an All-America candidate at end, is a stalwart along a front that includes senior T.J. Randall and junior Derek Floyd.
Dillon Winfrey and Aum’Aire Wallace have emerged as key players at the new hybrid linebacker post that is a combination of a defensive back and linebackers. Other projected starters are senior Blake Childress, junior Ricky Wyatt and sophomore Bailey McIver.
Senior Dominique Brown, coming off a season-ending injury last season, is a leader in a young secondary corps that has sophomores Bobby Watkins, Tirell Wellmaker and Prince Ene on the front line.
How quickly will a young secondary adapt? How much of a positive factor will the kicking game be that includes veteran place-kickers Eddie Carmara and Jace Denker (both injury-prone during their careers plus new punter Matt Spencer.
The road game at SLC favorite Southeastern Louisiana could be big, but before that, the Bears face a challenging test against Stephen F. Austin at Nacogdoches, a place that has often been difficult to win.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
Look for the possible emergence of 6-2, 207 senior tight end Jacoby Walker, who started his college career as a quarterback both at Arkansas and UCA. Campbell’s offense places a greater emphasis on the tight end.