Brandon Thurmond set the bar high for Arkansas-Pine Bluff defensive linemen.
Just a season ago, Thurmond finished with 17.5 sacks to lead all NCAA divisions and anchor the defensive unit of the SWAC football champion Golden Lions. He helped lay a foundation for an experienced group set to take over in 2013.
But just before UAPB’s season opener at Arkansas State, most of that experience was gone.
Senior Damien Lee and sophomore Demarcus Berry were ruled ineligible for the year. Senior Sean Robison has not yet been cleared by the NCAA for unknown reasons.
That left junior Troy Goss as the only returning starter on the line, and first-year UAPB D-line coach Dwayne Curry with his share of challenges.
“A lot of guys are young and inexperienced, and I had no spring to go through with them,” said Curry, who joined the Golden Lions’ staff in May. “All of them are young and they’re freshmen. It’s been a difficult time teaching technique and to be fundamentally sound.
“A lot of them are getting better, but it’s just a big gap in preparation. The other guys were older, more experienced, and Troy was the only one that played last year. It was just difficult in that aspect.”
The Lions have shown a weakness in defending against the rush. UAPB ranks last in the SWAC with 309 yards per game allowed, 62.1 behind ninth-place Grambling State.
Curry said rush defense starts with his line, but other players on defense feed off the line’s play.
As a group, the line has accounted for only five of UAPB’s nine sacks, junior transfer Joel Green and Goss leading the way with two apiece.
Senior Anthony Smith (1.5 sacks) and sophomore Caleb Ealy join Goss and Green on the starting defensive line, with freshmen Anthony Johnson and Kwan Cummings Jr. listed as the only reserves on the two-deep chart. Johnson is a Dollarway graduate who walked on who initially signed with Mississippi Division II power Delta State.
“They’re catching on and getting a lot better, the freshmen are,” Goss said. “We’re just really undersized and kind of small, but we fight.”
Curry said defensive lineman is the hardest position to play early on in one’s college career because he’s going against offensive linemen who’ve had a spring semester to prepare and more time in the weight room. For his young D-linemen, it’s just a matter of “going through the fire,” as he puts it.
“The main problem is, when guys are young, they jump out of their gap,” Curry said. “They don’t understand how the defense fits, so we try to keep the defense a lot more simple.”
Going into the eighth game of the season, Coleman isn’t complaining about not having more experience to work with.
“The guys we’ve got playing right now, they’re not playing bad, but when you lose Brandon Thurmond, Damien Lee, Demarcus Berry, Sean Robison, you’ve lost some good football players,” Coleman said. “We’re to the point where all of that is behind us. The ones that are on the field have got to play, and that’s what we’re doing. We played better against Southern in the rush defense.”
The Lions did, allowing a season-low 163 rushing yards against Southern last Saturday. But 136 of those came on Lenard Tillery’s 32 carries.
UAPB goes into this Saturday’s game at Mississippi Valley State with an unforeseen winless record and a seven-game losing streak, tied for its longest since 2008. But while inexperience has been a negative factor on defense, the Lions are determined to not let it be an excuse for another defeat.
“We’ve played this long, so it’s the execution, basically,” Smith said. “It’s just the little things.”