This football offseason for Arkansas-Pine Bluff has been quieter than last year's, so it's up to the players to make some noise for the next three weeks.
This football offseason for Arkansas-Pine Bluff has been quieter than last year’s, so it’s up to the players to make some noise for the next three weeks.
Coach Monte Coleman hasn’t had to make any coaching changes since the season ended, which has kept things relatively quiet. Offensive coordinator Eric Dooley is one of the three coaches who filled voids around this time last year, and for him the excitement of going into spring practice with his offense fully in place is high.
“I expect us to be far more advanced because of the knowledge of assignments and the guys that are returning,” Dooley said. “I’m real excited. The student-athletes are excited as well.”
A year ago, the Lions also had to figure out who their starting quarterback would be. That wasn’t decided until the first week of the season when then-redshirt freshman Ben Anderson emerged as the winner.
Just a few months later, Anderson became the SWAC Freshman of the Year after finishing the season with 1,876 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. He led UAPB to a 6-5 record, the team’s first winning mark since 2006.
“I think he’s going to show some great strides,” Dooley said. “With one year of playing collegiate football, we expect more.”
Coleman is expecting plenty of good things from his entire team when drills begin Monday. While there are some questions to be answered going into camp, Anderson’s maturity during the offseason isn’t one of them.
“There’s progression,” Coleman said. “He’s freshman of the year. He played well, but we expect him to play even better because he knows what the SWAC is about. He has SWAC hours, so now we’re saying, ‘It’s time for you to take another step up in your progression.’”
C.J. Branch and William Dunn are returning backups for Anderson. Branch, a former Watson Chapel standout, completed 1 of 2 passes for 13 yards in two games last season, while Dunn did not take any snaps.
Coleman has moved T.Q. Mims from free safety to quarterback, and walk-on Dennis Rubin is expected to take reps under center. UAPB also signed QB Eddie Heard Jr. from an Oakland, Calif., high school in February, but current high-schoolers won’t practice until August.
Some questions Coleman does face:
• Who will emerge at running back?
Adrian Moore and Stephen Jones are graduating — and hoping to be drafted this month by NFL teams — leaving the Lions without 1,140 combined yards of their rushing game from 2011. Jones scored 12 of the Lions’ 19 touchdowns in nine games, and Moore added 295 receiving yards to 680 rushing.
UAPB’s next two leading rushers, Dennis Jenkins and Justin Billings, are juniors-to-be. Jenkins averaged only 37.3 yards per game last season, but the Florida A&M transfer came up with some big plays in his first season in Pine Bluff. Billings had 25.1 yards per game, but he and Jenkins each ran for more than 100 yards in UAPB’s 22-21 victory over Southern in October.
“You might not notice Dennis because he’s gotten bigger,” Dooley said. Jenkins was measured as 5-feet-9, 204 pounds last season.
“He’s a guy who works extremely hard in the weight room,” Dooley said. “He’s like a small linebacker walking around here.”
Billings’ former El Dorado teammate John Toney and Watson Chapel graduate Aaron Lagrone, both of whom redshirted in 2011, could have strong spring drills as well.
• Will the offensive and defensive lines show improvement?
Second-team All-SWAC left tackle Terron Armstead missed some games last season with a high ankle sprain, and the Lions gave up 36 sacks on the season, 10 more than they made. Tight end Patrick Wray was granted an extra season because he missed all of 2010, which should help the Lions up front and in receiving.
UAPB has last two starting offensive linemen and four defensive ends to graduation, but the experience at the defensive tackles gives that unit much promise. The defense held opponents to 119.0 rushing yards per game.
“We have to play better on both of those (lines),” Coleman said. “If we do that, that will make us a better football team. With the guys that we have coming in, that will help us.”
Georgia Military College transfer Anthony Smith is one of three UAPB newcomers who enrolled in January. Smith will see time at defensive end.
• Can the defensive backs dominate?
James Harrell picked off five passes as a senior last season on his way to UAPB’s only first-team All-SWAC accolade. Two of their returning defensive backs, Jarvis Webb and Ryan Shaw, each had three interceptions and were among the top four tacklers on the team with 52 and 50 stops, respectively.
Coleman said he thought Webb and Shaw should have made all-conference along with Harrell. The coach is looking for big things from those two and another Georgia Military import, cornerback David Watson.
Coleman added wide receiver Isiah Ferguson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., the other transfer from ASA College will have an impact on the Lions.
One thing is without question: Coleman wants to make the fifth and final year of his contract his best at the helm. UAPB came up one game shy of making the SWAC championship game last season.
“You know, it’s kind of a misconception when a new head coach comes in that it takes three or four years to turn a team around, playing the way he wants them to play,” Coleman said. “I think that’s true on different levels. On the level that we’re on, I think it takes a little longer, and that’s because of resources. As far as our progression, we’re moving in the right direction, and that’s the thing I’m happy about.”