When Jer-ryan Harris came off his 129-tackle freshman season, the expectations were high for the Arkansas-Pine Bluff linebacker.
Now, the junior is meeting them at a crucial time for the entire corps.
“I actually feel bigger, stronger and faster than (2010),” Harris said. “I’ve actually improved a bit.”
Harris led the team in last Saturday’s 17-14 loss to Alabama A&M with 10 tackles, helping UAPB limit quarterback Deaunte Mason in the passing game. It was the fourth straight game the Golden Lions held the opposition to 14 or fewer points, dating back to the next-to-last game of the 2011 season.
But as Alabama A&M proved, 14 points sometimes can be too much.
“As good as we’ve played defensively, it hasn’t helped,” senior linebacker Bill Ross said.
UAPB coach Monte Coleman said the realistic goal is 17 points or less, which was three more than what Ross said after Saturday’s defeat. But Ross has an even higher standard for the defense.
“We’ve got to go for zero, and then we can’t lose,” he said.
If a shutout at Alcorn State is in the works, it will have to be done without the services of senior Joe Dalton, who was expected to start alongside Harris and Ross behind the line. During Monday’s practice Dalton re-injured his right foot, which has kept him out of play so far this season, and Coleman ruled him out for this week. His status beyond that is unknown.
“We can never replace Joe, but we have to move on,” Harris said.
UAPB has two proven leaders behind the line in its 4-3 defense in Harris and Ross, who has a team-high 18 tackles on the season. Junior Xavier Lofton has started in Dalton’s place in both games, and seven of his 10 tackles have been solo.
“I don’t think I’ve had to pick up any slack or anything,” Harris said. “We’ve had Zay (Lofton) come in and he’s done a good job. He’s filling in nice.”
Harris said the competition at linebacker has helped him improve this season. He was held to seven games last year with a bothersome hamstring injury, limiting opportunities to be on the field with Ross and Dalton.
While the Lions have two of the SWAC’s most recent 100-plus tacklers in the same corps, the unit is missing its co-leader in sacks (7) from last season in Dalton.
“Joe’s got good speed for a linebacker,” Coleman said. “He’s kind of a ‘tweener’ guy. He gives us the toughness of a linebacker but also gives us the agility of a safety.”
But Lofton has stepped in and made a “whole lot” of plays, Ross said.
“Joe made big plays,” Ross said. “Whenever we were down a lot of times, Joe made the big plays to help us out, get a sack or fumble. I think Xavier can do the same thing. He’s just a little less experienced. I hope Zay’s able to keep doing what he’s doing and we’ll be fine.”