The annual Black and Gold game for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions football Saturday was a stepping stone for the program under first-year Head Coach Cedric Thomas. A number of alumni football players, supporters and fans of football came out for the game, and that meant a lot to Thomas.
Since arriving in January after taking the position, it's been about setting a new culture — a winning culture. The Golden Lions officially began their Spring football practice in the last week of March, and according to Thomas the improvement in all aspects was visible.
The Black and Gold game ended in a score of 14-10 in favor of the Gold team, which represented the offense, and the Black representing the defense.
The game consisted of the ball being kicked off, not being returned, and placed at the 25 after each score or at the beginning of a new half. In other situations, the offense took over from where they stalled out at as the quarterbacks alternated drives.
Defensive scoring was made up of turnovers, three and outs, red zone stops and touchdowns.
This Spring, two quarterbacks got all the reps: Shannon Patrick and Roger Totten III. Both quarterbacks got to run the offense for five possessions each in the spring game, and both threw a touchdown to a different receiver.
Defensive Coordinator Juan Navarro had his guys ready, and they showed their improvements early on. They started out fast by forcing two three and outs before the offense gained a first down.
On that third drive, quarterbacked by Patrick, running back Jamal Gladden broke for a nice run, and a face mask penalty on the defense put them on their side of the 50 for the first time all game. However, the defense might have bent, but they didn't break as they stopped the Gold team on a third down near the redzone to force a field goal.
"They came out with a lot of enthusiasm, and coach Juan did a great job of bringing some pressure early to get them going. I thought they did a great job communicating. I'm out on the field so I can see it and hear it. I think they did an excellent job of understanding, because we have a complex defense structure. They tied into it from the front end to the back end. Minus those two big plays, they were solid. But like I've said last time, I can promise you this we won't be towards the bottom tier in defense again."
The offense responded with a few big plays in the passing game. Wide-outs Jeremy Brown and Kolby McNeal both caught passing touchdowns in the second half of the game to bolster the Gold team to the .
Patrick hit McNeal for a 55-yard touchdown strike, and Totten connected with Brown in the left corner of the end zone for about a 12-yard touchdown pass. Thomas was pleased with both quarterbacks. Shannon just got to campus earlier this year, and although Totten has been there, it's still a new system that they've had to learn.
Right now there are only two quarterbacks, but with the new crop of guys coming in the Summer, they're expecting two-three more at that position.
"Those guys are real cerebral and they had to learn a new system on the fly," Thomas said. "Especially with Shannon really just getting to campus almost in February once school had started. We're glad to have him and he really got better. The same thing with Totten, he took every day and used it to get better. They know we have two or three more coming in, but like we told them there's no way we should be able to bring somebody in and they take their spot, that's just our mindset. But then again every job is open and nobody has a position, and we'll continue to work on the competition."
The receivers that made the catches were credited by Thomas for being a couple of guys who have done those small things, and he believes their work will pay off.
"Jeremy is a big-time player," Thomas said. "Being good in Pine Bluff only holds so much weight. We tell them we want to be good in the nation, and that's how we feel as coaches. We have a chip on our shoulders and I don't think from a coaching standpoint you'll find anything better at any institution with what we have to work with. Nobody makes excuses. As coaches, I feel like we'll be able to iron out some of the things this summer and he'll continue to improve. Kolby has been a pleasant surprise. He's very athletic and very consistent on the offensive side of the ball. I come from an institution where playmakers like that can take it and go 80. I think if you put him in one of those jerseys he'll belong."
All-in-all, Thomas said he can see the growth, and it leaves him optimistic after the Spring.
"We're light years away from where we were when I got here in January," Thomas said. "It's a blessing to see the kids maturation from when we met to right now. Just seeing the crowd today, and the festivities going on was great, and I was I glad to see us stay focused on the small things. Staying sharp and doing the things that's associated with winning. To some, it may seem small, but to us, it's very big and they did a great job of that."
A couple of unlisted players suffered minor injuries, but there were no major setbacks from that standpoint. Thomas is full of energy that he's channeling towards this program, and he's already looking forward to getting the guys in for Summer workouts.
"Overall, we had a few bumps and bruises but nothing major," Thomas said. "I'm excited rolling into the Summer workouts in July. When we get all the kids back, we'll actually see how much retention we had from this Spring. That will be the most important thing. We're rolling on from the Spring to the Summer workouts, to the camp, and then it's the season."