UCA ready for the Big Time!

7/27/2010 7:56 AM

UCA's Stint in Division I Purgatory Is Over

by Justin Acri
7/26/2010 at 8:45am

The wait is finally over in Conway. After sucking it up through four seasons of postseason ineligibility as the program transitioned from NCAA Division II to Division I, the University of Central Arkansas’ athletic teams are in a position to be rewarded for a great season.

The UCA football program will be the first to potentially benefit, but the Bears will have to overcome some question marks and a disappointing 2009 campaign in the process. The guys in purple lost seven games by a total of 23 points.

You read that right. It marked the most losses in a season for UCA since Clint Conque’s first year in 2000, with the worst defeat coming at FBS opponent Hawaii by 5. The setback in the season opener was also the hardest to stomach because the Bears led for most of the game and were in front with under 1:30 to go.

UCA rallied to win five of its next six games but ended on a five-game losing streak. A season that began with so much promise never materialized. Conque says the season wasn’t without its share of lessons.

“I think we learned an awful lot,” says Conque, who is one win shy of equaling Harold Horton’s school mark of 74. “You don’t take anything for granted and even though we had a big senior class, coming off a conference title, you learn not to take things for granted.

“I think it was a perfect storm in a lot of ways. We lost some playmakers, our fifth-year quarterback [Robbie Park] was starting for the first time, we lacked in the leadership role and after you lose a couple of close games you wonder which shoe may drop next instead of being proactive and going out and making plays.”

UCA lost some playmakers to injury in the early going, including tight end Rico Moss and receiver Willie Landers, who came in as the top returning receiver, but was knocked out for the season with a knee injury on the first day of fall practice. Both return this year along with a list of electrifying offensive stars, such as receivers Dominique Croom, Conway native Isaiah Jackson and running back Jackie Hinton Jr. The first time Hinton touched the ball last season, he raced 48 yards for a score against Northwestern State.

Among the areas of concern is quarterback. Redshirt freshman Wynrick Smothers and University of Arkansas transfers Nathan Dick and Jim Youngblood are vying for the starting position. Conque is confident each has what it takes to play at a high level and have success. Dick, who started two games at Arkansas, is leading the pack after a strong spring and will be protected by a solid offensive line, which Conque says will be a little smaller, but more athletic.

The defensive line should be very effective despite losing Larry Hart, who was the two-time defensive player of the year in the Southland Conference, a two-time All-American and a fifth-round draft choice of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

The greatest area of strength for the Bears may come on special teams. First Team All-SLC senior Eddie Carmona returns at place-kicker after hitting 16 of 20 field goals last year and 13 of 19 in 2008.

Players and coaches alike say the ability to earn a trip to the postseason adds a little extra motivation. That feeling extends across the 17 funded sports on campus. According to Athletic Director Brad Teague, UCA teams that played well enough to earn an invite missed out on postseason play a total of 17 times during the transition, including the football team that won 10 games in 2008 and ended the season with a league-best 6-1 record.

Although Teague says the impact wasn’t as great as expected, being ineligible for conference and NCAA tournaments made it tougher to recruit.

“It was an issue for all our programs, and it did cause us to lose some of our recruits to other institutions,” said Teague. “We think our pool of candidates will be larger now, and we’ll have a more talented pool. I felt like we were ready before the four years, I think we were ready in two, but I understand why they do it this way.”

Being a fully established D-I member comes with other benefits as well for the athletic program. UCA will also now share in the conference financial package that is expected to bring in $400,000 to the athletic program over the next year — about 5 percent of the total athletic budget.

Teague says the best thing about becoming a member of Division I is the more stringent academic requirements that he believes get positive results. “We will have more student-athletes graduate because of the Division I progress toward degree rules.”

For the football program, there would be no better way to celebrate the first year of eligibility than to earn a conference title and play beyond the 11-game regular season. It is most imperative for those who will have one last chance to get there. The 13 seniors were on the 2008 team that was ineligible for postseason play, but didn’t find out until just before the final game that it would not be recognized as “Southland Conference Champions.”

If the Bears miss out on a Southland Conference title and an automatic berth, they still have a better chance than ever before to earn an at-large bid to the FCS Championship Tournament. The field has been expanded from 16 to 20 teams. Senior Henry Minor, part of the 2008 unrecognized “title” team, says players have voluntarily been working out in seven-on-seven drills, getting after it in the weight room and spending time in film study preparing for the fall. He says a major focus is doing all the little things right after a season filled with costly mistakes.

“If we can cut down on the penalties and taking care of the small things, that will really help us out,” Minor says.

The wait is over. The work necessary to take advantage of the opportunity is under way. UCA opens its 11-game schedule Thursday, Sept. 2, in Conway against Elizabeth City State.

(Justin Acri is program director of KABZ-FM, 103.7 The Buzz and host of the weekday show “The Zone,” 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. He provides color commentary on UCA football broadcasts and is host of the “Clint Conque Show” on KATV, Channel 7.)


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