As a team last season, Arkansas-Pine Bluff totaled 26 sacks. Linebacker Joe Dalton and defensive lineman Michael Johnson led the Golden Lions with seven each.
Johnson’s line mate, Brandon Thurmond, was a distant third with 3.5. Through three games this year, he has nearly doubled that.
“Basically what I’ve seen is pretty much an attitude change,” UAPB defensive line coach Dennis Winston said. “I think he’s a little more focused this year on the things he wants to get accomplished and everything. I think he sees the potential he has. A lot of people have been talking to him, so that has lit a fire in him a little bit.”
Those people would be NFL scouts who have their eyes on the 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior left end from Augusta, Ga. So far, Thurmond is helping his case for a draft pick in 2013 by leading the SWAC in sacks this season with six. He made two Saturday in a 24-6 win at Alcorn State.
Thurmond’s goal against Alcorn State was challenging — to dominate 320-pound offensive lineman Cornelius Brown.
“Coaches said, ’67 (Brown) is going to get you, 67’s going to get you,’” Thurmond said. “It was a motivational thing. I just wanted to show the coaches that nobody can block me.”
Thurmond’s two sacks were for a total loss of 15 yards, and he added an assisted tackle for another loss. He also helped the Golden Lions post their best defensive game of the season, allowing the Braves only six points.
“The whole week, we were preparing ourselves for a shutout,” Thurmond said. “The touchdown they scored, they didn’t really score on us. The refs said, ‘Give it to them.’ So we’re going into Alabama State, and we’re shooting for the same goal to make it easier for the offense.”
Alabama State (2-1, 2-0 SWAC) will test its potent offense against a UAPB (2-1, 1-1) defense that leads the conference in points allowed and is second only to Mississippi Valley State in total defense at 239.3 yards per game.
Much of the credit can be given to Thurmond, who set a high goal for himself this season.
“My goal coming into the last season is beating the (SWAC) sack record, getting 22 sacks,” Thurmond said. The mark is actually 20.5, set by Prairie View A&M’s Adrian Hamilton last year to break the 2002 record of 20 by Alabama A&M’s Robert Mathis, now of the Indianapolis Colts.
At two sacks per game, Thurmond is on pace to reach his goal, but he probably could have more at this point.
“He’s got six sacks and probably missed another three or four over the three-game span,” head coach Monte Coleman said. “He’s turned that corner. Right now, he’s one of the premier pass rushers in the SWAC right now.”
Turning the corner meant understanding his potential, according to Winston.
Thurmond came to UAPB along with Laney High School teammate Theodore McNeal, who completed his eligibility last season, and redshirted his first year. Coming into the 2012 season, he had yet to establish a presence in the backfield like Johnson and Dalton did in 2011.
“He was just going through the motions,” Winston said. “Then, I think all of a sudden, the light came on.”
Now, Thurmond has the attention of offensive linemen trying to contain him. But Winston said that will only open up opportunities for right defensive end Damien Lee.
So far, Thurmond’s making the most of his.
“Staying focused, giving God all the praise and glory to help me through my season, protect me from being hurt and help me set big goals for myself,” he said.
2012 SWAC sack leaders
(Through three weeks)
1. Brandon Thurmond, UAPB, 6
Tie-2. Javarius Conner, Jackson State, 3
Tie-2. Joseph LeBeau, Jackson State, 3
Tie-2. Robert Simpson, MVSU, 3