To say that this past football offseason at Arkansas-Pine Bluff has been a mixed bag might not be the right way to put it. But it has been bittersweet.
The good: This has been UAPB’s first experience gearing for the season as a defending champion in the SWAC. Sometimes, a good finish in the preseason will result in a good prediction for the upcoming year.
But it’s very likely those who predicted the Golden Lions to repeat as Western Division champions — no overall champion is picked in the SWAC — did their homework rather than just base the future on (immediate) past success.
The Lions are nothing short of experienced on both sides of the ball. The men behind the ground game and air attack are back. The defensive line isn’t losing a step without the loss of Brandon Thurmond, and neither is the linebacking corps without Bill Ross.
Also, UAPB has secured its man for the next three, maybe five years. Monte Coleman was able to keep the engine rolling through a busy offseason that’s had him work out details of a new contract months after his original deal expired. But Coleman, ever the professional, never seemed like a coach whose future was in question.
Because it was never in question. It was just a matter of details.
The bad: Something that goes beyond football. A young man who shared in the program’s glory not too long ago was taken away too soon.
Lydell Hartford Jr.’s name never appeared in a game-day roster, but the Lions knew who he was. He walked on to the team. He built relationships with his teammates. He helped the Lions gear up for every game.
He left the team after the season, according to Coleman, but he wasn’t forgotten. Had it not been for a careless act by a teen, according to authorities, Hartford might have gotten the itch to play again. If not at UAPB, somewhere.
But we’ll never know.
What’s also sad is that the Lions have to begin preseason camp Saturday afternoon on that note.
That same morning, Hartford’s funeral service will be held in New Orleans. How the team will honor the young man this season is not yet known, but more importantly, how the entire team will bond together and carry on in their first time together since this tragedy remains to be seen.
It puts other questions UAPB may face during the season in perspective:
• Will the running game make more of an impact? Who can contribute behind Justin Billings right away?
• What will quarterback Ben Anderson do for an encore, now that he’s the SWAC preseason offensive player of the year?
• How quickly can the offensive line mature without Terron Armstead, Christopher Wilson and Lyron McClenney?
• Will Jer-ryan Harris repeat his freshman-year success when he made 129 tackles?
• Kicker Tyler Strickland is a hero, but can his scoring be more automatic for UAPB?
These questions aren’t all that important in the wake of tragedy. But it’s not like the Golden Lions won’t address them.
I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at email@example.com.