The Zone

UCA Column

7/14/2011 6:48 AM

For those of you interested in UCA this fall, you may enjoy the following.  This was what I turned in for the Arkansas Sports 360 Preview, but due to space constraints and the face that I have a tendency to run long (surprised anyone?  I didn't think so) it had to be cut.  Here is the full monty...

The turf may get all the headlines, but by the time all is said and done in Conway, the team could earn the majority of the attention this fall at Central Arkansas.


The Bears enter the 2011 campaign with high hopes.  There are 17 starters back, a senior quarterback under center and a collection of speedy, hard-hitting ball-hawks on defense.  The season will also start with a significant change in the playing surface as the Bears transition to turf in place of grass at Estes Stadium for the first time in school history.  For those who haven’t heard, this is not your father’s turf.  Or even your older brother’s.  This turf isn’t green or blue or red or any solid color for that matter.  It’s an ambitious layout of purple and grey alternating every five yards, with 10 yards of grey at mid-field and black end zones.  The combination creates a look that has never before been seen in college football (or anywhere else of which I am aware).  Think Boise State’s “smurf turf” on steroids procreating with a photoshopping madman. 


National media in television, radio and print [THIS IS A LINK IF YOU CAN USE IT] picked up quickly on the turf tale which was originally spun on April Fool’s Day, but this fake, fake-out is all too real.  At around $750,000, so is the price tag.  It has however created an unexpected marketing tool at no extra charge and according to athletic administrators is expected to pay for itself in maintenance savings over time.  Head coach Clint Conque, who is an old-schooler at heart, supported the change.  “I am a traditionalist, a purist.  I cut my teeth on a Bermuda playing surface and we were the last Southland Conference member to have a grass surface.  What changed my view is we are still different.  We have a nontraditional field and our players are excited and I am all about winning and our players’ state of mind. 


Conque always sets high expectations for his football teams and this season is no different.  Led by U of A transfer and Second Team All-Southland Conference selection Nathan Dick, the Central Arkansas offense finished second in the Southland Conference in scoring (26.9 ppg), passing (253.2 ypg) and total offense (372.2 ypg) and returns most of it’s contributors.  Dick is back for his senior season as the league’s top returning passer and has continued to grow according to Conque.  “Nathan played a lot faster this spring and is developing some leadership skills.  Nathan is a quiet guy by nature, but the players are responding to him and I think any time you have an experienced guy at that position you have a chance to be successful.  We expect big things from Nathan,” says Conque.


Dick has most of his targets back despite losing top pass-catcher Ken Robey.  In addition, the top six rushers are back including power back Terence Bobo who established himself as the most reliable ball carrier last year and was named to the All-Southland Conference Second Team.  The Atkins native will fight for playing time with two elusive playmakers in junior Jackie Hinton and sophomore Marcel Threat along with fellow junior Anthony Blackmon who is coming back from a season-ending injury and worked his way up to second on the post-spring depth chart.


The defensive coaches also have reason to be optimistic.  Linebacker Frank “The Tank” Newsome, who led the Bears in tackles and was fourth in the league with 100 stops, returns to lead an opportunistic group that put opposing runners and passers on notice.  Freshman of the year Jestin Love picked off six passes and returned two for touchdowns and will be joined in the defensive backfield by former Stuttgart star Seth Allison who nabbed four interceptions of his own.  They were major contributors to the team’s total of 17.  The defensive line should also be solid with several returners, but the next great defensive lineman has yet to be revealed.  UCA is becoming DEU (Defensive End University) with three players drafted at that position into the NFL since 2007.  Jacob Ford went to the Titans that year followed by Larry Hart to the Jaguars in 2010 and this year the Patriots selected Markell Carter.  Conque is keeping an eye on Marianna product Larry Duvall and believes his physical talent could lead to some big production.


On special teams, first the good news.  Isaiah Jackson, the school’s all-time leading kick returner, is back and looking to add to his career total of 1,581 yards.  Several others will have a chance to join him including Love who showed some great moves on his interception returns in 2010.  The area of concern is kicker after the departure of two time all-conference performer Eddie Carmona.  Arkansas transfer Eddie Camara and junior Kevin Buford should compete for the starting job with Buford the leading candidate to take over the void at punter.


The 2010 Bears went 7-4, but finished on a high note with four wins in the last five games of the season.  The performance down the stretch got them at least in the conversation for the postseason.  They hope their regular season performance will be impossible to ignore when the invitations are handed out this year.  Conque says “I don’t think there’s any question that winning four of the last five gave us a lot of momentum going into recruiting and the off-season program and I think our players knew how close we were to getting to the postseason.  I think that has made our team even more hungry this year.”


To get there, the purple and grey will have to overcome a schedule that offers some serious challenges.  Three straight road trips await the Bears after they open on the new field against Henderson State.  The away games include a road trip to Jonesboro to face ASU and a trip to Conque’s old stomping grounds in Ruston against LA Tech.  After that, Central Arkansas alternates home and away conference games the rest of the season.  Among the conference road games this year are Sam Houston State which has been a difficult opponent the last few years and Lamar in Beaumont where the Bears have never played.  “Our players embrace the challenge and we just need to take care of ourselves.”


Conque has reason to be excited as his team prepares for what could be a memorable 2011, but even he knows it will take a fantastic season to get the casual fan to have a lasting impression that has more to do with the guys than the ground.  “It’s a controversial subject with some people, but I think its been unfairly judged with people forming opinions before they see the completion of the surface and I think people who see it will agree that it is a first class playing surface.  At the end of the day I am more worried about the product we put on the field than the actual field.”


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