Backfield going forward: New faces replenish group

Draylon Willis bulled his way into the end zone with convincing skill during Saturday’s scrimmage. Michael Wilson rocked the scrimmage with a hard low-shoulder smash on a carry up the middle.

Combined, they rushed 19 times for 95 and two touchdowns in 2013. But with more noticeable plays like those, the two Arkansas-Pine Bluff returnees in the backfield will do plenty to move the ground game forward in the 2014 season.

“I feel like this is the year for me to run the ball, too,” said Earle’s Wilson, who scored both touchdowns in 2013 on eight carries. “So, I’m going to try to get stronger at fullback and running back to be more versatile this year.”

Willis, a sophomore-to-be from Wynne, is the only returning tailback in spring drills from a team that was supposed to be loaded behind the quarterback. But expected go-to players like Justin Billings and Aaron LaGrone were sidelined because of academic concerns, leaving the backfield to four freshmen tailbacks and junior Wilson.

Willis and Wilson are now the only returnees who played in 2013. Walter Ashley and Jamie Smith left the team, and Jeremiah Young won’t be back at least until his legal issues are resolved.

The three departures accounted for 915 rushing yards — almost exactly half of UAPB’s total.

“We’ve got to fill some voids,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “But one guy we’re counting on to start for us is Aaron LaGrone. … All three backs (LaGrone, Willis and Wilson), I thought, did the things I thought were necessary (Saturday).”

Of the nine running backs currently in spring drills, four are recent walk-ons to the team, some of whom played elsewhere and had to sit out 2013 due to transfer rules. Three — Jalen Dabner, Rashad Boyd and LaGrone — either redshirted or were academically ineligible last year.

“We have a new offense,” Willis said. “To lead this group of guys — we’re all hopping in it together — I think it’ll be a good experience for all of us.”

But Willis has LaGrone to help him set an example for the other tailbacks.

“It’s a big responsibility,” LaGrone said, considering he hasn’t played a down in more than a year. “I just want to show I’m still in shape. I know how to cut and run. I’m still the same LaGrone, a little better than I was before.”

Wilson is capable of handling the tailback role as well, but he is currently the only fullback the Golden Lions have in the spring.

The fullback role seemed to fit him best when he made very audible contact with a defender running up the gut, drawing cheers from his teammates.

“I was just really trying to protect the ball and protect myself,” Wilson said. “In the end, I got positive yards. I got positive yards out of this.”

Also in spring drills …

Quarterback Brandon Duncan shared reps with starter Ben Anderson and Marcus Terrell in Saturday’s scrimmage. It was Duncan’s first action in team-oriented drills since coming back from a pulled hamstring earlier in the spring. … Joey Louis, who like Duncan and Terrell was a freshman quarterback in 2013, is now practicing at defensive back. … Tight end C.J. Branch, a senior-to-be, is not working out this spring after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus. … UAPB has six practices remaining before its Black and Gold Game at 1 p.m. April 26.