When the Arkansas-Pine Bluff football team learned Thomas Winters would get to play this season, the players gave their teammate a standing ovation.
Then came the game against Texas Southern, and Winters’ number was called on the very first play from scrimmage. A regular slot receiver, Winters burst out of the backfield and hauled in a 7-yard catch.
It was his only catch in UAPB’s 41-28 loss, but it ended a long wait.
“I was just declared eligible to play late in the week,” Winters said. “We had a lot of timing issues (on the field) we had to get down and everything. I will play a lot more than I did last week.”
And wide receivers coach Craig Raye said Tuesday night Winters, who played tailback and slot back at Cahokia (Ill.) High School, will be used in many offensive positions.
“He’s a playmaker,” Raye said. “You may see him at split end or at wideout. But we will put him in the backfield again to create some mismatches.”
Winters had been nursing a persistent right knee injury that limited his repetitions during preseason camp, but was expected to start upon his return.
That start was expected to come Sept. 7 at McNeese State, UAPB’s second game of the year. But Winters had to wait a little longer.
The holdup had nothing to do with his injury. He was one of at least 13 Golden Lions who weren’t yet cleared to play by the NCAA for reasons the university has not specified.
Winters said he wasn’t at fault for not being cleared.
“I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I tried to get my (eligibility) information in as soon as possible. It just took a little while. Personally, I don’t know why it took so long.
“But, I knew I just got to keep it in God’s hands. Something was going to happen. Something’s going to shake.”
Now, as the last remaining member of head coach Monte Coleman’s original recruiting class of 2008, Winters is finally seeing action in his sixth year on campus. He received his a bachelor’s degree in parks, leisure and recreation in May and is pursuing a master’s degree in rehabilitation.
Winters hasn’t played a full season since 2009, his second year as a starter. He tore his ACL in the third game of 2010 and missed the remainder of that season and all of the 2011 campaign.
He played in 11 of 12 games in 2012, making 19 catches for 187 yards. But his health never returned to 100 percent until this campaign, which the NCAA granted him shortly after this past spring.
“I’m good,” he said, asked about his health. “I’m gonna make some moves this weekend.”
Winters was expected to be a factor in a loaded wide receiver corps with fellow seniors Ladarius Eckwood and Dezmond Beverly returning. So far, it’s been a rough going for the senior class, as neither has caught a touchdown pass and Beverly leads all UAPB receivers with 49.7 yards per game on 23 catches. Eckwood has only eight catches, but averages 21.8 ypg.
“We’ve got a bigger rotation,” Winters said. “Everybody’s playing a lot, doing what they can do, when they can do it.”
Winters, so far, has already made an impact in the Lions’ locker room. He’ll try to make a bigger presence on the field this Saturday when UAPB hosts Southern for homecoming.
“What Thomas brings to us is that leadership,” Raye said. “He’s a fired-up guy. He’s been with the program when it was down and has seen the highs of this program when we won the (SWAC) championship. He gives us that leadership that we need.”
SWAC standings, schedule
Team Conf. Over.
Southern 3-1 3-3
Prairie View A&M 3-2 4-3
Texas Southern 1-4 1-5
UAPB 0-4 0-6
Grambling State 0-4 0-7
Team Conf. Over.
Jackson State 5-0 5-2
Alabama State 5-1 5-2
Alcorn State 3-1 5-2
Alabama A&M 2-3 2-5
Miss. Valley State 1-3 1-5
Mississippi Valley State at Prairie View A&M, 2 p.m.
Alcorn State at Texas Southern, 2 p.m.
Grambling State at Jackson State, 2 p.m.
Southern at UAPB, 2:30 p.m.