BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — How good can the preseason get for Arkansas-Pine Bluff football?
The defending SWAC champion, UAPB is picked to win the Western Division again. It has 11 players on the preseason All-SWAC teams, including nine first-teamers. One of them, quarterback Ben Anderson, is the conference’s preseason offensive player of the year.
And sixth-year head coach Monte Coleman finally has a new contract in place. Along with that, the Golden Lions have a new defensive line coach to start the season.
That’s how good it gets.
But then again, it’s the preseason, Coleman reminded.
“It’s a prediction,” he said. “The thing they’ve got to do, each one of them individually, is take it upon themselves to live up to the expectations that their colleagues and other schools have for them. I can remember years when we had one or two (preseason All-SWAC players), … so we are moving in the right direction. We are starting to get recognized. We are starting to get great players we do have recognized.
“And the bottom line is, it comes from winning.”
The preseason All-SWAC teams and predicted order of finish were announced during SWAC Media Day on Monday at the Birmingham Marriott, in the home city of the conference headquarters. UAPB is a heavy favorite in the West, garnering 14 of 24 first-place votes and finishing with 105 voting points, 17 ahead of Southern (six first-place votes).
Alabama State is the favorite to win the Eastern Division with 108 points (15 first-place votes). Defending East champion Jackson State is second with 102 points (nine first-place votes).
The predicted order of finish is determined by votes from SWAC sports information directors and selected members of the national media.
Anderson, the most outstanding offensive player in December’s SWAC championship game, earned the top offensive preseason honor. He finished with 2,346 yards and 16 touchdowns passing and added 524 yards and five TDs rushing last season as a sophomore. His 2,870 total offensive yards were second in the SWAC.
“It’s a nice surprise,” Coleman said. “I wasn’t sure with the other great athletes we have in the SWAC that he would be the pick, but he put up some impressive numbers and he is the returning championship quarterback of the SWAC.”
Joining Anderson on the first team from UAPB are: running back Justin Billings, wide receiver Ladarius Eckwood, tight end Dezmond Beverly , offensive lineman Kenny Eagle, defensive linemen Damien Lee and DeMarcus Berry, linebacker Jer-Ryan Harris and defensive back Ryan Shaw.
Harris, Eckwood and Beverly were named to the College Football Performance Awards watch lists for their respective positions. And with nine offensive and eight defensive starters returning for the Golden Lions, each one feels the pressure of having better individual seasons than last year, according to Coleman.
“I think we all do,” Coleman said. “I don’t think anyone from an individual standpoint is satisfied with their performance. They want to get better.”
Harris, a senior, is looking for his second 100-tackle season at UAPB. He finished last season with 98, third on the team behind now-graduated Bill Ross (127) and Xavier Lofton (107).
“I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure, but it is a sign that I have to step up,” Harris said.
UAPB also hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiver or rusher since Raymond Webber’s All-America season of 2010. Senior H-back Dezmond Beverly is seeking to improve on a 434-yard year that included six touchdowns on 46 receptions.
He’s one of Anderson’s many targets coming back, including Eckwood and sophomore Willie Young.
“The goal is to try to spread the ball out, try to make sure every receiver has a chance to do great things,” Beverly said. “We don’t want just one receiver to be the breakout receiver. We want everybody to do good.”
Beverly took Eckwood’s place for Media Day. Eckwood could not make it because of a family emergency, Coleman said.
The Golden Lions are facing a much different nonconference schedule from recent years with no games in Little Rock and none in major cities outside of SWAC play. They kick off the season Aug. 31 at Arkansas State and travel to tradition Football Championship Subdivision power McNeese State the following weekend.
Coleman’s son Kyle is a linebacker at Arkansas State.
“I think (Arkansas State) is a good matchup for us,” Coleman said. “It will definitely let our team know that when we go down there, after the game is over, how to gauge ourselves on what to improve on because we’re going to play a very good football team. Of course, the last component is my son will be playing. I’ve got to beat my son.”
He said that with a laugh.
Arkansas State will be the first Football Bowl Subdivision opponent UAPB has played since Texas-El Paso of Conference USA in 2010. Coleman also confirmed the Lions will play new Sun Belt Conference member Texas State in 2014, adding that he’s received calls from New Mexico and SMU about playing sometime within the next two seasons.
“We’re getting the phone calls, and it goes right back to what we talked about: When you start winning, good teams want to play you,” Coleman said.
Coleman said Monday his new contract was finalized Friday. Terms of the contract weren’t immediately available, but UAPB athletic director Lonza Hardy has said the new deal is for five years.
Then-interim UAPB Chancellor Calvin Johnson, along with Hardy and Coleman, signed the contract on June 20 and forwarded it to legal representation for the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees for approval.
The new deal marks the end of more than a year of negotiations. Coleman’s original five-year contract expired in December and he had worked under a gentleman’s agreement since then, holding offseason activities including spring drills as normal.
“I’m very happy to be signed,” Coleman said. “It was my hopes and dreams. The Lord has not moved me from Arkansas-Pine Bluff. I feel like I’m still supposed to be there. So, I’m very happy I signed the contract and am happy to still be a part of the Golden Lion family.”
Curry on board
UAPB found its new defensive line coach shortly after the end of spring drills, but it was not announced until the release of the Golden Lions’ media guide Monday.
Former Mississippi State linebacker Dwayne Curry replaces Dennis Winston, who left UAPB to take the defensive coordinator position at Grambling State. Curry was a three-time Butkus Award candidate and four-time All-SEC linebacker who graduated from Mississippi State in 1997.
He was most recently defensive line coach at Division II West Alabama. He also coached collegiately at East Mississippi and Hinds community colleges and Birmingham Southern College.
“He brings enthusiasm,” Coleman said. “It’s going to be hard shoes to fill with coach Winston leaving, but coach Curry has adapted with the coaches, and players have fallen into his philosophy, which is hard work.