Had Justin Billings not missed a game last season, he likely would have become the only SWAC player to rush for 1,000 yards during the campaign.
But the El Dorado product is back for his final season at Arkansas-Pine Bluff with a big target on his back, anyway.
“I’m good with the target on my back. That just motivates me more,” he said.
Billings’ 852 yards was second only to 932 by Alabama A&M’s Kaderius Lacey, who was a senior last year. But Billings’ production in a well-balanced spread offense earned him second-team All-SWAC honors last year and first-team preseason All-SWAC accolades for this year.
He would like to back up the honors with UAPB’s first 1,000-yard rushing season by an individual since Martell Mallett turned in 1,121 yards in 2006. Since then, Mallett came closest to the plateau with 919 in 2008.
“It’s been a goal since day 1 when coach (Eric) Dooley touched down,” Billings said of the third-year offensive coordinator. “In our offense, our vision is having a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher.”
The Lions found the former last year when Ben Anderson threw for 2,540 yards. Billings’ pursuit of 1,000 yards was hampered by a broken nose he suffered in the Oct. 6 home game against Jackson State. He missed the second half of that game, underwent surgery on it and missed the next game at Southern two weeks later.
Saturday, he’ll have an opportunity to refresh the public’s knowledge of his rushing skills as the Golden Lions hold their first scrimmage of preseason camp at 2:15 p.m.
With the loss of the team’s second-leading rusher (Dennis Jenkins) to exhausted eligibility, the Lions are looking to veterans who’ve seen limited playing time to significantly play a factor in 2013.
Injuries limited Watson Chapel graduate Aaron Lagrone and John Toney each to six games last year. Lagrone, a redshirt sophomore, is coming back after sustaining a separated hip. He’s the third-leading returning rusher (150 yards) behind Billings and quarterback Ben Anderson (519).
Toney, a senior, has not yet practiced during preseason camp, nursing a severe groin injury that’s plagued his career. He worked through spring drills with the injury.
A timeline has not been set for his return.
Redshirt junior Alton Taylor could play a bigger role after appearing in six games in 2012. He’ll jockey for playing time with a large group of freshmen, including local standouts Walter Ashley (Pine Bluff High) and Jeremiah Young (Dollarway).
Running backs coach Keith Saine has given walk-on Young the nickname “Secretariat,” after the 1973 Triple Crown-winning horse, because “he can go all the way.”
“We went out trying to get some bigger backs and local backs, a majority of which we got from Arkansas,” Saine said.
The new crop includes Draylon Willis of Wynne and Jeremy Jamison of New Orleans. Another freshman, Camden Fairview alumnus Jamie Smith, pulled his hamstring during the first day of practice and has been sidelined since.
Junior Michael Wilson returns to fullback, while classmate and quarterback-turned-tight end C.J. Branch has been working out partly at that position as well. Saine said he wasn’t sure how much Branch would be utilized behind the quarterback, adding it depends on the package that Dooley runs.
UAPB began practicing in full pads Thursday and held its first pair of two-a-day practices Friday. Coach Monte Coleman likes the shape his team is in as they battle the brutal afternoon heat.
“Actually, guys are in good shape,” he said. “We’re not quite in great football shape, but we’re in good condition. We’ve got a ways to go in order to be ready for our first opponents (Arkansas State on Aug. 31 in Jonesboro).
“I’m pleased with the condition they’re in. (Friday) being the first day of two-a-day practices, that’s what we needed leading into the scrimmage (Saturday).”
The scrimmage is expected to go about 80 plays with drives starting at the offense’s 30-yard line. Coleman is looking forward to seeing how the four first-year quarterbacks behind Anderson — Brandon Duncan, Watson Chapel grad SanAntonio Cole, Joey Louis and Marcus Terrell — respond to defensive pressure, although they will not be hit.
Coleman wants to get Duncan, who is currently the top backup, “back up to speed” in his progress like he was during spring drills, but added the other freshmen are doing fine. Coleman said he wasn’t sure what might be holding up Duncan’s progress.
The large class of freshmen have taken what Coleman calls a “considerable amount” of repetitions in practice, exceeding his expectations of how far along they might be at this point in camp.
“We’re clicking at a good pace, but we even have to pick that pace up,” Coleman said.