CONWAY — An experienced bunch of University of Central Arkansas Bears will officially kick off fall practice Saturday morning, 28 days in front of their season opener at Arkansas State on Sept. 4 in Jonesboro.
The Bears, who return 20 starters, will be prepping for their first season as part of the ASUN-WAC Challenge after 15 successful seasons in the Southland Conference. UCA will play two ASUN members and four WAC members, all former members of the SLC. It starts with practice No. 1 on Saturday.
“From Day 1, I want to see a lot of retention, because we have a veteran team,” said head coach Nathan Brown, entering his fourth season as head coach of his alma mater. “When you return that many starters from a team that had so much success last fall, you should see retention, you should see guys playing fast, understanding what our schemes are. And really going out and not making many mistakes.”
“Obviously we’ve got a good crop of freshman and transfers that are going to integrate into our system, but for the most part a lot of these guys are back for another year, so we’re excited about that. It should make for a quick install time so we can get into the real part of camp fairly quickly.”
The Bears had a league-best 13 players named to the preseason All-ASUN team, after having 11 student-athletes named to the Fall All-SLC team last fall, including Coach of the Year in Brown. Sophomore wide receiver Tyler Hudson was named the 2020 Fall SLC Offensive Player of the Year and the preseason ASUN Offensive Player of the Year for 2021.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of peer leadership, we’re going to have a peer-led team,” said Brown. “I think we’ve got some really good teammates, just because they’ve been here. We have 10 or 11 of what we’re calling super seniors who are using their covid-waiver year for their fifth or sixth year. So when you’ve got a veteran group like that, they should be leaders, they should be the face of your program.”
“I also think, if you look up and down our roster, we have as much team speed as we’ve ever had. We’re just really fast. An emphasis has been put on that in recruiting and we have guys who can really run that have been here. But this freshman class and some of these transfers we brought in that will be competing for a spot can really run at the skill positions. That’s something that I’m really excited about.”
Brown said the emphasis early in camp will be on a couple of specific positions.
“We’ve got to develop a backup quarterback, figure out who’s going to win that job,’ he said. “We have three capable quarterbacks (third-year freshman Darius Bowers, second-year freshman Hunter Loyd, true freshman Tyler Gee) behind Breylin (Smith). That’s going to be a great competition and we have to figure out who’s going to be the guy.”
“I think offensive line, we feel very comfortable about the first six or seven guys, but we need to continue to build depth there. We have some talented young guys and some guys we were able to redshirt and a couple of true freshmen with a lot of talent. We’ll see how we develop that depth on the offensive line.”
“And on the defensive side, it’s really linebackers, there’s going to be a lot of competition in our linebacker room. We feel very solid about our top guys on the defensive line and in the secondary. But at linebacker, you have some key names that are really going to be competing there. Guys like Darin Davenport, Trenton Dunn, T.J. Campbell, Malik Wilson, Kendarrius Moore, a young freshman, Dwain Hunt, another freshman. There are guys that are going to be competing really hard in that room and that will be fun to watch.”
The Bears have several highly touted newcomers, including a quartet of transfers that will be battling for playing time from the start.
“It starts at corner with Willie Langham, a transfer from Tulane,” said Brown. “He’s a really long corner who started 8-9 games for Tulane last year, so he’s got a ton of experience. Looks the part, can really run, excited to see how he integrates into our defense.”
“Kylan Stribling is a safety who is a graduate transfer from Middle Tennessee. He’s a guy who had a ton of production at an FBS program. And then Davon Wright, a defensive tackle from Tulane, will be competing for a lot of playing time on the defensive front.”
Those three added some maturity to our defense immediately and I’m excited about them.
“On offense, Jaden Salley, an offensive lineman from Arkansas-Monticello has a chance to come in and compete right away. He’s also a graduate transfer, an All-Conference player in the GAC (Great American Conference) who is using his last year of eligibility with us. And then Darius Hale, a true freshman who enrolled early in the spring, at running back. I think he’s as talented and skilled a running back as we’ve had. It will be fun to watch him compete with Cameron Myers and some of the guys we already have here for playing time in the running back room.”
UCA finished with a 5-4 record while playing a full fall schedule in 2020, while numerous schools competed in the spring of 2021 and will have a quick turnaround.