Breakthrough Year? Toney, Taylor look for more of impact at running back

A starter when he was a freshman, John Toney was looking forward to finally putting together another full, productive season on the Arkansas-Pine Bluff football team in 2012.

In his third game after a redshirt season, it appeared he got a boost toward that goal.

UAPB was clinging to a 7-6 lead at Alcorn State on Sept. 15, but the Golden Lions struggled to get its ground game going. That was until, with 3:15 left in the third quarter, Toney bounced off a tackle and broke a 54-yard touchdown run to expand the lead.

Toney called that run the biggest play of his UAPB career.

“We weren’t getting much production in that game, but he gave him the ball because he was hot,” running backs coach Keith Saine said.

It appeared Toney would be a constant presence in the Golden Lions’ run to the SWAC championship. But an injury derailed his season.

He hurt his groin two weeks later in a loss at Tennessee State and tore it almost a week later in preparation for the Southern game. He never returned to action for the rest of the season.

In fact, he didn’t start practicing again until after spring drills began.

“It was tough,” Toney said about missing the final stretch of the season and the SWAC title game. “I had to get healthy, but I stayed in the running backs’ ears, told them I was with them no matter what.”

He’s back in pads, preparing for his last chance at a full season. These spring drills could be an opportunity for him to solidify a bigger role among a deep pool of running backs, led by all-conference performer Justin Billings, his El Dorado High School teammate.

Alton Taylor hopes to make a bigger impact as well. He made a case Saturday, rushing five times for 31 yards and a touchdown in the Golden Lions’ latest scrimmage.

Taylor played sparingly during the 2012 season, after mainly returning kicks as a true freshman in 2010 and redshirting the next year.

“It just gives me time to perfect my craft; that’s how I look at a redshirt season,” Taylor said.

Playing behind Dennis Jenkins and Billings, Taylor has just had to wait for his opportunity. He got it in six games last season, netting 81 yards on 22 carries, a whole game’s worth for many first-stringers.

But he kept the Lions moving on the ground when Jenkins and Toney were hurt.

“He gets the tough yards for us,” Saine said of Taylor. “But he can rush the ball inside and outside. He’ll play a little fullback for us, sometimes outside.”

Taylor was a 2,000-yard rusher his senior year at Countryside High in Clearwater, Fla., and is looking for a breakthrough season in Pine Bluff.

Toney wants to bounce back for his finest season at UAPB. He was a starter as a true freshman in 2009, but his playing time was cut short the next year when Adrian Moore and Dhabion Woodfin emerged as starters. He didn’t go into why he redshirted in 2011, but neither that nor his injury-shortened year has kept him from chasing his goal.

“It’s been an uphill battle,” said Toney, who had 102 yards on 21 carries last year. “But I’ve got to keep God first and keep working. I want to stay loyal to the program. I came here with a goal, and I want to play toward it. That’s to play to my fullest potential.”

He knows he can give the Lions a spark whenever they need it, just like he did at Alcorn State.

“I’ve got plenty of that in me,” Toney said.