The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions are looking to beef up their defense this season in order to have more success than last year. In 2017, UAPB finished 10th in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in total defense, which was good for last. They finished 10th in pass defense, 9th in scoring defense and 9th interceptions.
UAPB first-year Head Coach Cedric Thomas comes over from Alcorn State University, where he served as their Defensive Coordinator, so the area where UAPB lacked at the most is his strong point. Thomas is very engaged in what the defense is doing, and he's on the same page as his Defensive Coordinator Juan Navarro.
Thomas brings a certain energy to practice, and he said he does it so that the players can feed off of it; so far the defense has done as such. The case with a lot of the players on defense is that they were there last year, but they might not have been positioned for success. A prime example is this staff's decision to move senior defensive back Rico Merriweather from safety, where he played last season, to cornerback this fall.
"I think it just starts with leadership," Thomas said. "When you look at the faces and the film from last year, a lot of these guys played. They weren't always put in the best position to be successful, but that's our job as a coaching staff. Defensively, we take on the temperament of the coach, and I don't do it for show, but I feel like I have to be the one to have the juice. I'm blessed to have this opportunity coming from where I've come from, so you'll see me jumping around having fun."
Navarro came over from Southern University, and he has a solid staff of defensive assistants assembled under him. Defensive Line Coach Deion Roberson and Defensive Backs Coach Torenzo Quinn are working hard every day with their units to make sure that they're picking things up and becoming more fluid with their movements.
"It boils down to our coaching staff," Thomas said. "When I go in the meeting room I tell the kids if I have coaches running after that ball why can't you? I think it's starting to get contagious, and we're excited about them flying around and the effort they're giving. We want to also execute. We don't want to be the defense that just goes hard getting to the football. We want to understand on down blocks we have to do certain things, and we have to be disciplined with our eyes."
Execution was a hardship on the Golden Lions' defense in the past few years as they simply couldn't find the formula to stop the run-pass option (RPO) plays. According to Thomas, he's well educated on stopping the RPO attack that most teams in the SWAC are running these days. The defense that Thomas and Navarro are implementing is one that the players have fully bought into. Although it may sound simple, a lot goes into stopping the RPO's, but the most important thing is discipline if you ask Thomas.
"They're really loving it," Thomas said of the new defensive scheme. "This spring we brought a lot of stuff from Coach Juan's and my background. We married them together to get a good fit for what our kids can do. The biggest thing is getting them to understand that the run-pass option is just that. It's a run play, it's a pass play, and they have an option of both. If you're responsible for playing the run just play the run. If you don't do it the right way and you only play the run and you get the pass play then their band is playing. If you play the pass and get the run play you get the exact same thing. We have to do a great job of getting them to understand if you have a run option play the run and if you have a pass option play the pass."
The players are soaking it all up like sponges, but they want to know why things are being done certain ways.
"Their biggest thing is they want to know why," Thomas said. "We love it because we come from why, and we want to explain to them why we're doing it. We don't want them to think we think they're just a kid trying to ask questions to show us up when they just want to know."
In the final portion of Thursday's practice, Thomas called for an uptempo period where the first team offensive line up against the first team defense. The defense handled the pressure of the pace that was thrown at them, and they got the best of the offense. After the uptempo period was ended the offense was running gassers why the defense continued with their regular scheduled practice routines.
"I try to put them in negative situations defensively," Thomas said. "I try to put Coach Juan and that defensive staff in as many adverse situations as possible. For one that's life and it's going to happen. It's about how you deal with it, and if we can put them in those stressful situations now we know on Saturday's it'll be taken care of."
On Saturday, the Golden Lions are set to hold their first scrimmage of the fall.