The starting lineup for Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s offense can change each game. But Justin Billings will be the starting running back next Saturday when the team starts the new football season against Langston (Okla.).
Just don’t expect Dennis Jenkins to be limited in any way.
“Those guys are one-and-one together,” offensive coordinator Eric Dooley said during Saturday’s team media day. “You won’t miss a beat with those guys.”
But how much of an effect exactly will the running backs have on the offense this season? UAPB has not had a 1,000-yard rusher in at least the past two seasons, although it continues to take advantage of its depth at the position.
The Golden Lions also have a more mature quarterback in sophomore Ben Anderson, who hopes to improve his passing numbers from last year. Dooley said he has a vision of a 2,000-yard passing season for Anderson and 1,000-yard rushing season for one of his running backs, although those statistics aren’t most important to him.
“What I’m looking for is the W, and all of that comes with having a great passing game, great rushing game,” Dooley said. “When you have the talent, I think it’s going to happen.”
Billings and Jenkins lead a group of running backs that’s big on youth. Jenkins, who transferred last season from Florida A&M, is the long senior of the group and Billings enters his redshirt junior season along with El Dorado teammate John Toney. Redshirt freshman Aaron Lagrone of Watson Chapel has seen plenty of reps during preseason camp, as has recent Pine Bluff High graduate Jalen Dabner, freshman Marvell Harris and redshirt sophomore Alton Taylor.
Senior Jeremy Edmonds will start at fullback, with redshirt sophomore Micheal Wilson and sophomore Terrance Butler behind him on the depth chart.
“I wish all of our positions had the depth our running backs do,” head coach Monte Coleman said. “Justin Billings will get the nod to start, but you have Jenkins, you’ve got Lagrone, you’ve got a host of running backs that can come in and play for us.”
Coleman recruited Billings and Toney after seeing them play against Watson Chapel, where Coleman’s son Kyle played. Billings led UAPB in rushing yardage two years ago with 388, but that was during a big passing season for then-senior Josh Boudreaux (2,750 yards). Billings was fourth on the team last season with 251, trailing leader Adrian Moore by 429 and Jenkins with 373.
As a team last year, UAPB totaled 1,790 rushing yards, almost matching Anderson’s 1,876 passing yards.
“A lot of guys say we used the running game to take a load off Ben, but I never held anything back from Ben because I thought he’s an intelligent young man who picked up things well and wanted to be the best at what he was doing,” Dooley said. “The thing was, that was the strength of our offense last year, the running backs, so why not use what you had?”
Both Billings and Jenkins have focused on their strength during the offseason. Jenkins said he added 35 pounds since January, which has helped him become faster and feel more powerful when running the ball.
Next Saturday will be the 205-pounder’s first and only chance to play a season opener with the Lions. He was not cleared in time for last year’s opener, citing paperwork issues during his transfer from Florida A&M, but played the remaining 10 games.
“I’m comfortable, more than anything,” Jenkins said of going into the season. “I’m not questioning myself. I’m familiar with the coaches. I think they know my running style, and I know what they expect of me, so there’s no uncertainty.”
Anderson has been the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback since the start of last season, and Coleman said he has matured more than anyone else on the team.
Playing behind him are senior William Dunn, who did not take a snap last year, and junior T.Q. Mims, who moved from free safety during spring drills.
“Can’t be the same as last year,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to improve. You’ve got to have more touchdowns, more yards. But overall, as a team, if I have less than a yard and we win the game, that’s all that matters to me.”