Monte Coleman said he has no major concerns about his Arkansas-Pine Bluff football team going into preseason camp, which begins today.
He knows he has 10 starters returning on each side of the ball from last year’s 6-5 squad, a team that was second in the SWAC West Division and just a few big plays — or defensive stops — away from 9-2. He has newcomers who rose to the occasion during spring practice. He has the 2011 SWAC Freshman of the Year engineering the offense.
A lack of major concerns doesn’t mean the Golden Lions won’t go into the season without questions to answer. The players reported to campus Friday with high expectations despite being picked third in the West behind defending conference champion Grambling State and Prairie View A&M. As the season goes on, the Lions will answer — one way or another — these five questions:
1. What kind of season can quarterback Ben Anderson have?
UAPB leaned more toward the run with a wide stable of running backs last year. The Lions gained 2,286 yards on 478 rushing attempts, compared to Anderson’s 1,876 yards on 166-of-309 passing for a 53.7 percent completion rate. It was Anderson’s redshirt freshman season, and the Lions used the run to help take pressure off him, although he did go on to win the Freshman of the Year honor. He has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game, and in the April 28 spring game, he showed he can by completing 16 of 22 passes for 303 yards. A low interception rate — Anderson had 10 touchdown passes and nine picks last season — will benefit him again.
2. Who will Anderson’s main target be?
Junior Dezmond Beverly comes into camp competing with sophomore Joel Porchia and junior Isiah Ferguson for this role. UAPB has lost three of its top four receivers in yardage (Rontrell Bailey, 403; Adrian Moore, 295; and Jevon Dixon, 263), and Beverly was third with 294. But Beverly led the team in receptions with 34.
Ferguson and Porchia had solid spring practices. The 6-foot-6 Ferguson got to work out with UAPB after transferring from ASA College in New York, and Porchia is looking for more playing time after playing sparingly last fall. Redshirt junior Ladarius Eckwood also could be a factor if his hamstring injury that nagged him during the spring has fully healed.
3. How healthy are the Golden Lions?
Coleman has not reported any ongoing injuries going into camp. Junior linebacker Jer-ryan Harris hopes to return to his 2010 Freshman of the Year form after missing some games last year with a hamstring injury. Senior offensive lineman Terron Armstead was healthy during spring camp after battling a high ankle sprain. Senior tight end Patrick Wray was awarded a fifth season of eligibility because he missed nearly all of 2010 with an ankle injury, and he looks to put together a complete 11-game season after missing some time last fall with a concussion.
4. What kind of impact can the running backs have?
With a beefed-up junior Dennis Jenkins and classmate Justin Billings back in the fold, the Lions’ running game could take off even if they lean more toward Anderson’s passing. Jenkins added weight during the offseason, which should help him take the feature role in the rushing game. He is the leading returning rusher for the Lions, but he totaled only 373 yards in the shadows of Adrian Moore and Stephen Jones, who combined for 1,140 yards. Billings averaged more yards per carry than any other Lion last year with 5.8, but he finished with only 251 total yards.
5. What improvements can the Lions make defensively?
Coleman is looking for his defense to limit the big plays, something that was a struggle for the team last year because players tended to play outside their roles at times, he said. UAPB was fifth in the conference in points allowed per game with 21.5, and fourth in total defense despite giving up 319.5 yards per game.
The secondary is a strength for UAPB. Henry Miller has returned to the staff as secondary coach and is taking over a group that had a big hand in 18 pickoffs last season, second best in the conference. Junior free safety Ryan Shaw is on the watch list for the College Football Performance Award for FCS defensive backs.
UAPB will look for continued consistency in the linebacking corps from senior Bill Ross, who recorded 107 tackles. With a healthier Harris lining up near Ross, the Lions could improve in their rush defense and quarterbacks may feel more pressure in the pocket.