‘It Was a First Day’: Lions feel bigger target on backs

For the first time in his college football career, Arkansas-Pine Bluff linebacker Jer-ryan Harris knows how it feels to go into spring drills as part of a defending SWAC championship team.

“When you come off a championship, you have a big target on your back,” the rising senior said. “So I would have to say it feels like more pressure now because you have a big target on your back. You have a bunch of teams who want to come beat you. It’s way more pressure.

“I’m trying to get better, faster, stronger, … all of that in a hurry, too.”

Imagine the pressure the Golden Lions will face come Aug. 31 when they open the season at Arkansas State.

For now, they’re back on the field preparing for their SWAC title defense. Monday was the first day of spring practice for the Lions, and in the eyes of head coach Monte Coleman, it went like a first day.

“It actually wasn’t a bad day, but it wasn’t a great day,” he said with a smile after Monday’s practice. “We’ve got a ways to go, and I guess my expectations are high right now. But basically, it was a first day. We’ve got a lot of guys we have to teach, and we’ve got to be a little patient with it being the first day.

UAPB lost 18 seniors from last year’s team. A 19th, wide receiver Thomas Winters, is working out as the team hopes he will be awarded an extra year of eligibility. Winters missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to injury and was listed as a redshirt senior on the 2012 roster.

Only two of UAPB’s 17 signees this offseason are working out with the Lions in the spring: quarterback Brandon Duncan, a North Carolina Prep transfer and defensive lineman Lawrence Henderson, from Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College. The other 15 signees are high school seniors and will join the Lions in the summer.

Yet, Coleman’s expectations are still high — partly because of the Lions’ championship status.

“It’s always high this time of year,” Coleman said. “Today was no exception. Coming off the championship, the thing I don’t want to let us do is get complacent. We’ve got to make sure we’re working hard and smart. We’ve got some guys who walked on during the spring, and they don’t really know what they’re doing, so this is a teaching period for us for a lot of guys. But we have high hopes.”

Duncan got his first official workout with the football, taking snaps as the only backup to Ben Anderson in the spring and getting a few pointers from the starter during some repetitions.

“He throws a very good football,” Coleman said of Duncan. “I think that’s the biggest part of it. Learning coach (Eric) Dooley’s offense is going to take him a little while.

“This is his first practice. We haven’t been able to meet with him because he’s been in winter conditioning. Right now, this is mental conditioning. He can throw the football. He’s got great movability. He’s going to be a plus for us.”

Harris hopes the Lions will answer after spring drills who will fill the void in the linebacking corps left by graduating senior Bill Ross, the SWAC championship game’s most outstanding defensive player.

“Bill Ross is leaving us a big hole in the middle, but we have a bunch of guys Bill was mentoring while he played at the position, so we’re hoping they can step up with the same enthusiasm and heart that Bill did,” Harris said.

The Lions were missing some usual faces Monday.

Dennis Winston, a University of Arkansas Hall of Famer, left UAPB as defensive line coach last month to become defensive coordinator at Grambling State. Brian Niedermeyer, a former Golden Lion and student assistant last season, is “volunteering” as a defensive line coach until Coleman makes a permanent hire, the head coach said.

Coleman said he hopes to start interviewing candidates by next week.

Johnathan Johnson and Erick Thomas, both rising senior wide receivers, are coming off knee surgeries and did not work out Monday. Also, rising senior running back John Toney was absent as he is still rehabilitating from a groin injury that cut his 2012 season short.