Monte Coleman on Friday night gave only a hint to the “coach’s nightmare” that had him worried as his Arkansas-Pine Bluff team prepared for Saturday night’s season opener at Arkansas State.
He said his team is dealing with eligibility issues. But he maintained a strong sense of optimism as well as his Golden Lions will meet the Red Wolves for the first time ever.
“We’re fine as a football team,” Coleman said. “We’re ready to go play a football game. I see it in my guys’ eyes.
“It will be without some of our guys, but I feel confident in who we will play with and that we will play for 60 minutes.”
Coleman declined to say which or how many players were affected by the eligibility issues, but they are apparently the reason for what he called after Thursday’s practice “a bad time in Golden Lion Nation.”
Nothing seemed odd about the UAPB two-deep roster as of Friday; the usual key playmakers were still listed on the first string and are projected to start Saturday night.
The problem is apparently fresher than the challenges Coleman revealed earlier in the week. UAPB will start the season without talented free safety Ryan Shaw, who’s academically ineligible. Senior Thomas Winters, who has practiced little to none during camp with a persistent knee injury, did not make the trip.
But the latest “distraction,” as Coleman also termed it, has not affected his faith in the Golden Lions.
“We’re talking positive to the team,” Coleman said. “The team is upbeat. We’re going to get over this. Regardless of who we’ve got to play, we’re going to play them. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go in there trying to win a football game. Just like we said to start training camp, we’re going in to play well, win this football game and push this thing to the fourth quarter. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Saturday night’s meeting comes on the heels of great success for both teams. UAPB is coming off its winningest season ever — 10-2 — a SWAC championship and the Heritage Sports Radio Network national championship for historically black Football Championship Subdivision programs. Arkansas State, which will play its first game under Bryan Harsin, won the Sun Belt Conference and 10 games each the past two seasons.
It’s a big game for native Arkansans involved who grew up learning a little about both programs. It just may be another big game for some.
“For me, it’s another game,” said UAPB junior quarterback Ben Anderson of Little Rock. “It’s Arkansas, so I feel like it’s an opportunity to show who the best team in Arkansas is between the two of us. I’m looking forward to it. It’s an in-state game, so it does make it a little more (noteworthy), but at the end of the day, it’s still another football game.”
Another major storyline involves a long-awaited meeting between Coleman and his son Kyle, who is expected to start at linebacker for A-State. Neither has shown any strong emotion in anticipation of the game.
“I hope (Kyle’s) not nervous facing us,” Monte Coleman said. “It really isn’t personal. … I hope he doesn’t have any pressures on him and he’ll be able to come out and concentrate on what his assignments are.”
Then, there’s the premiere of a starting quarterback. Adam Kennedy, a senior transfer from Utah State, won the nod during training camp, beating out five others for the job, including A-State veterans Fredi Knighten and Philip Butterfield.
He takes over an offense that includes seven returning starters, including senior running back David Oku, a preseason first-team All-Sun Belt choice, and sophomore wide receiver J.D. McKissic, who’s coming off a 103-catch, 1,022-yard campaign.
But with two new offensive coordinators in Bush Hamdan and Eliah Drinkwitz in place, Coleman said the Lions’ defense won’t know much about A-State’s attack. The two teams did not exchange offensive tapes on each other, Coleman said.
“We’re going in blind,” he said. “We’ll have to make some adjustments early in the first quarter.”
UAPB will rely on a larger pool of veterans. SWAC preseason offensive player of the year Anderson, senior tailback Justin Billings and senior H-back Dezmond Beverly lead a group of nine returning offensive starters who helped the unit average 399.3 total yards per game last season.
Both teams are familiar with each other’s defenses, Coleman said, as no coaching personnel have changed for those units. Harsin retained defensive coordinator John Thompson from Gus Malzahn’s staff.
“That helps us out,” Anderson said of the familiarity with the A-State defense. “That’s why offensively we feel confident. The system hasn’t changed. … I feel pretty confident from watching film and watching our team we know what we need to know.”
The challenge of playing against an FBS team — let alone a successful one in Arkansas — doesn’t seem daunting to the Lions. But they’re aware what kind of stage they’ll perform on Saturday night; it’s the first time UAPB has played a Football Bowl Subdivision team since a loss at Texas-El Paso in 2010.
“I think (we’ve) reacted fine (to the challenge),” Coleman said. “It’s another game for us, for the players. It’s a huge game, and we’ve expressed that. The speed of this game is going to be a lot faster than anything they’ve seen in practice. Now, it’s a matter of getting to the game and letting them see and do what we do, play football. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Golden Lion Notes • I.C. Murrell
• A victory Saturday night will give Monte Coleman 30 for his head coaching career. The sixth-year head man is 29-27 at UAPB.
• UAPB also is a win away from setting a school record for the longest winning streak — eight games. UAPB last lost a game on Sept. 29, 2012, at Tennessee State (40-13).
• Saturdya night’s UAPB game is the first of two that will be showcased on ESPN3.com. The other is UAPB’s home opener against Alabama State on Sept. 14.
• Haven’t gotten your ticket yet? The game was not sold out as of Friday evening, according to The Jonesboro Sun.