It’s clear who the leader of the Arkansas-Pine Bluff defensive line is — other than first-year position coach Dwayne Curry.
After Monday’s practice, Damien Lee led the linemen through a series of hitting drills, showing by example and even calling some players back to the starting point if they didn’t do it right.
The defensive end has never been at a loss for words with his teammates, but with the loss of 2012 NCAA sack leader and current Atlanta Falcon Brandon Thurmond, his voice is much greater.
“I stepped into the leader role last year, but I was still following because we had actual seniors and I was a junior,” the Little Rock Central graduate said. “Me actually having to step up, it came at a perfect time because it’s an opportunity to come out and shine.”
Lee’s even sporting a new haircut for the season, following Thurmond’s lead and dropping his long dreadlocks for a low cut.
“My boy Brandon Thurmond got (17.5) sacks after he cut his off, so I wanted to see how many I could get,” Lee said, laughing.
How the Golden Lions are living life after Thurmond is no longer a question; they’re counting on their wealth of experience and Lee’s leadership to move forward. But whether anyone can have the All American-caliber season Thurmond enjoyed last year is anyone’s guess.
Lee, a senior from Little Rock who had six sacks in 2012, is going to give it a try.
“I would like to have a sack a quarter,” he said.
That would be an astronomical 44 sacks for the regular season alone. The single-season high-water mark across all NCAA divisions is 27 by late Alabama great Derrick Thomas in 1988.
“I set my goals high, so if I fall short, I’m still ahead of everybody,” he said.
The UAPB defensive line is blessed with experience from the first string to the reserves. Defensive tackles Troy Goss, a junior, and Sean Robison, a senior, earned some starts last season, and they’re working on the first string again with Lee and senior Anthony Smith at the other defensive end.
Robison made a name for himself last December in the SWAC championship game. He collected a sack, batted down a pass and blocked a field goal attempt on Jackson State’s overtime drive. UAPB scored on the ensuing possession to win, 24-21.
That defensive series gave the Fort Smith Southside graduate a lift into the spring and preseason camp.
“I got an opportunity to show what I can do, and I just want to bring that into this year and team camp and carry on from the base that started for me in the SWAC championship,” Robison said.
All the active D-linemen are still getting used to Curry’s philosophy of playing fast and playing on another level.
“We’re working hard right now,” Curry said. “We’re getting some great pressure on the quarterback. We’re playing the run a lot better. So every day we go out, we’re working hard to get better. I think we’re going to be pretty good up front.”
Curry’s also making sure the line plays with plenty of physicality. Head coach Monte Coleman said he didn’t see enough of that during Saturday’s scrimmage.
“What he wasn’t happy with the defensive linemen was (not) using the hands and getting guys locked out and getting off blocks,” Curry said. “We’re very pleased with the pass rush. We had about five sacks. We got some pressure, but we left some sacks on the field.”
Coleman had high hopes for junior-college transfer Lawrence Henderson to fill Thurmond’s shoes and become a huge factor, but the coach said Henderson has struggled during camp. According to Curry, Henderson was dehydrated after Saturday’s scrimmage and went back home to Houston to undergo tests.
Curry wasn’t sure when Henderson might return, but said: “We’ll know something by next week.” UAPB has already lost one defensive lineman as freshman Anthony Johnson, who originally signed with Division II Delta State out of Dollarway, quit the team, but Curry said Johnson had considered returning.
Curry said Smith, who backed up Lee last year, has made the biggest stride since spring drills. Reserves Demarcus Berry, a junior, and Caleb Ealy, a redshirt sophomore, saw some action last year and will compete for more playing time along with junior Joel Green, redshirt freshman Jontrell Lockett and newcomer Jonathan Watson.
The Lions moved Green, a transfer from East Los Angeles Community College, from linebacker to the D-line on Monday.