In a season without key experienced players, Arkansas-Pine Bluff often struggled to contain high-scoring offenses in close games.
Sure, there’s also the Arkansas State and McNeese State games where UAPB was whipped 62-11 and 58-14, respectively. But in SWAC play, the Golden Lions gave up 40, 42, 41 and 50 points in losses where they were within a touchdown in the final 3 minutes.
The main culprit in those defeats were the opposing rushing game. The Lions allowed 277.3 yards per game on the ground during the season.
Not the way defensive line coach Dwayne Curry wanted his first season on the staff to go.
“You have to stop the run in order to win,” the former Mississippi State linebacker said. “We’re coming in a lot bigger. Last year, we were a lot smaller. It’s hard to stop the run when you’re smaller.”
There was another telling statistic: UAPB sacked quarterbacks only 13 times last year. Opponents sacked UAPB’s Ben Anderson 27 times.
No defensive position at UAPB was harder hit than on the front line, where Damien Lee and Sean Robison missed out on their senior seasons and Demarcus Berry and Jontrell Lockett their junior campaigns due to the team’s academic eligibility crisis. But Curry has restocked his group not only with experience but with more size, which was a common theme during this past recruiting season.
“We were just young,” Curry said. “When I came in, we had some eligibility problems, and we had to play with freshmen. Those freshmen are coming back more experienced. The guys coming in are a lot more experienced. That was the whole thing, experience. You throw guys in the fire who are not ready for the fire.”
Troy Goss is used to that fire as the Lions’ only fourth-year defensive lineman in 2014.
“We’re still pretty young,” the right end from Shiloh Christian said. “Berry’s been out for a year and Jontrell’s been out for a year. They’re just getting everything redone back to where we were. It’s just that repetition will make us better.”
Two seasons ago, Brandon Thurmond anchored the line with a SWAC Defensive Player of the Year season. This year, Goss — who had 35 tackles including 2.5 sacks — is blessed with plenty of experience lining up near him.
And he has a plan for the line.
“Brandon was more of an outside guy, but I think I could be the next dude that takes the next step to leading us in the right direction,” Goss said. “We’ve got a few other guys helping us out. We’re more mature.”
Two junior transfers currently working on the first string D-line were recruited from both coasts. One of them, Los Angeles Harbor College graduate Jarell Wright, is 6-foot-3, 315 pounds and lines up right next to Goss. To Goss’ right is Marc Lucien from Monroe College in New York state.
Berry is the starting left end for now, and Curry is high on him.
“Berry’s going to be a great player,” Curry said. “If we would have had him last year, we probably would do a whole lot different talking than we got right now. He’s grown a lot. He’s coming back ready to play. He’s our vocal leader, and he leads by example.
“Troy’s really stepped up too, becoming more of a leader.”
But Curry has plenty of other linemen who could shake up that lineup with strong performances in today’s scrimmage, the first of two in UAPB’s preseason camp.
Redshirt junior Caleb Ealy started with Goss at the tackles last year, while Kwan Cummings Jr. saw extensive time as a freshman. Little Rock Central graduate Jonathan Watson is coming off a redshirt and has lost 60 pounds from last year, now weighing 340, according to Curry.
“I hope we come to play,” Curry said. “We had a great practice (Tuesday). We sacked the quarterback some. We stopped the run some.”