Three years have passed since Arkansas-Pine Bluff has had a 1,000-yard receiver for the season. But no one on the team is complaining about that.
Ladarius Eckwood had a breakout 2012 season to lead the receiving corps and help lead the Golden Lions to the SWAC championship. Willie Young blossomed through the campaign into a championship hero.
All four wide receivers who started last season are back. And the Lions are deep at every wideout position.
“We’re probably seven or eight-deep,” ninth-year receivers coach and assistant head man Craig Raye said. “That’s probably the best we’ve had here since that ’06 team (the first UAPB team to go to the SWAC title game).”
So reaching for All-American numbers that Raymond Webber posted in 2010 or being the No. 1 target for quarterback Ben Anderson is not exactly a goal for the UAPB wideouts this season. Getting everyone involved to help Anderson is.
“We try to make them play as a unit because you’re only strong as a unit,” Raye said. “There’s probably not going to be one guy who makes a ton of catches like we had in Raymond Webber. We’re going to spread it around a little bit.”
Even if they do, Eckwood, a senior from Springdale, has the potential to remain the Lions’ most consistent threat. He led the team last year with 787 yards and six touchdowns on 52 receptions, enjoying a breakout season after missing all of 2011 with a bad hamstring.
“He’s matured so much from his first or second year here,” Raye said. “He’s put in a lot of work over the summer. He’s running routes well. His weight (185 pounds) is good, and he’s got that no-nonsense attitude. He’s not saying anything. He’s working, and he lets his work do the talking for him.”
Eckwood did a lot without trying to be the main target.
“It’s a whole team effort. I’m just trying to go with the flow,” Eckwood said.
That whole team effort includes sophomore Young, who averaged a team-high 39.1 yards per catch — making only eight receptions in seven games as a freshman.
Young’s most memorable catch may be the greatest in UAPB history: An over-the-shoulder grab from Anderson near midfield turned into a 95-yard play that sent the SWAC title game against Jackson State to overtime.
Then, there’s senior Dezmond Beverly, who equaled Eckwood in touchdown catches and had 434 yards on 46 catches. He and Eckwood combined for more than half of the team’s total catches and receiving yards.
Now, they’re looking for a little more help from their friends.
“Now that we’ve got experience, those numbers (of other receivers) should jump up,” Beverly said. “It shouldn’t be just two receivers averaging the most catches on the team.”
The Lions should have more experience to count on by the start of the regular season. Thomas Winters, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility, isn’t expected to practice during the first two weeks of preseason camp with a right knee injury, but he could start along with Eckwood, Beverly and Young in the Aug. 31 opener at Arkansas State. For now, sophomore Cody Swain is working with the first team as a slot receiver.
Experience serves the reserves well, too. Six-foot-6 senior Isiah Ferguson, classmate Dexter Bryant and sophomore Joel Porchia saw considerable amounts of playing time last year.
“We’ll use Ferguson for sure in red-zone offensive packages because of his height,” Raye said. “Most importantly, he’s improved his speed, too.”
Bryant’s presence will allow Beverly to be moved around in the offense, Raye added.
Sophomore Sam Bass, a Watson Chapel graduate who transferred from Arkansas-Monticello, could be another deep threat. He started working out with UAPB during the spring after sitting out the 2012 season.
Redshirt senior Erick Thomas and junior Wesley Hawthorne could make an impact as receivers as well. Fort Smith Northside graduate Ernest Gray and Camden Fairview alumnus Braxton Hoof are promising freshmen within the corps.
However much each receiver contributes, Beverly hopes it’s in the form of points.
“We’ve got so many weapons, we’re going to be able hopefully put up 35-plus points every game,” Beverly said.