For all the troubles Arkansas-Pine Bluff has weathered on defense, the Golden Lions have a couple of bright spots on that side of the ball. And the bright spots are outshining the rest of the nation in tackles per game.
Going into the seventh week of the college football season, two of the Lions’ linebackers lead the entire NCAA Football Championship Subdivision in that category. Redshirt sophomore Antonio Jenkins may be the most pleasant surprise, averaging an FCS-best 13.8 tackles after missing the season opener against Arkansas State. Jer-ryan Harris is second, registering 12.8 stops through all five UAPB games.
“We got there just by effort and good coaching,” Harris said.
But Jenkins’ and Harris’ excellence on a national scale has not translated to a victory — yet.
Per game, the Lions (0-5, 0-3 SWAC) have given up 44.6 points and 509.4 total yards. Where teams have hurt the Lions the most is on the ground; UAPB gives up 329.0 rushing yards a game.
“We’ve got to go out and do what any good defense would do. We have to go out in the first quarter and send a message, pretty much show them that we came to play that particular day,” Harris said.
Reminded of Jenkins’ and Harris’ national rankings during a skid, all UAPB coach Monte Coleman could do was chuckle when asked to explain that fact.
“I really can’t explain it,” he said. “With the numbers that have gone against us in the rush, I guess they’re getting a lot of opportunities.”
UAPB’s last defensive play against Jackson State last Saturday revealed a microcosm of the team’s woes. Tommy Gooden broke a 30-yard touchdown run on third-and-8 with 60 seconds remaining to end the Lions’ hopes of a comeback win. The middle gap, which Gooden exploded through, was not covered.
“It’s got to be everybody on that play. It can’t just be the two of us,” Jenkins said. “If we can get the team to play like me and Harris are playing the whole game, then I don’t think we would be leading the nation.”
That’s not to say the rest of the defense is relying on the two linebackers.
“I wouldn’t say relying, but lack of effort every play,” Jenkins said. “If we can get the team to go every four plays instead of taking off a play, I believe no team will be able to beat us.”
Jenkins is having a breakout season at strong-side linebacker. He was one of many Golden Lions who missed the Arkansas State game while waiting to be cleared by the NCAA.
The 2011 Watson Chapel graduate worked out some in the secondary during preseason camp but found his permanent role at linebacker.
Harris is no stranger to excelling in stops. He had 129 tackles as a freshman to lead the SWAC and had 98 last season, good for sixth.
But in 2013, his 64 total tackles are second only to James Madison’s Stephon Robertson. Harris is on pace to shatter his freshman total.
“Those guys are ball hawks,” Coleman said. “They have the ability to run to the football. We’ve known that in past years with Harris, and we’re seeing Jenkins getting some opportunities to play, and we knew that’s the type of ballplayer he was at Watson Chapel.”
So Coleman’s not totally surprised to see his two linebackers top the national tackling chart.
“Them and our defense have to eliminate the missed tackles,” UAPB linebackers coach Earl Buckingham said. “If you make a bunch but then miss the key ones, you’re going to put points on the board. We made a lot of tackles, but we’ve also missed a lot.”
Winters back; Billings done
Coleman said Thursday that sixth-year senior receiver Thomas Winters will make his season debut Saturday at home against Texas Southern (0-5, 0-4 SWAC).
Winters was projected a starter in the slot during preseason camp, but was hampered all through August with a persistent knee injury. He also hadn’t been cleared to play this season until now.
Coleman said teammates gave Winters a standing ovation when they learned of his availability.
Senior Justin Billings, however, will not get to take the field this season. Coleman confirmed Thursday the Lions’ leading returning rusher from last year is academically ineligible.
Billings was expected to start this season and hoped to improve on his 852-yard campaign in 2012.
The coach added he’s still hopeful to have senior defensive lineman Sean Robison and sophomore wide receiver Willie Young cleared before the end of the season.
Military Appreciation Day
Saturday’s game at Golden Lion Stadium represents Military Appreciation Day. All active military personnel in uniform will be admitted free of charge.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
Tickets for UAPB’s three remaining home games also can be purchased online by going to www.uapblionsroar.com.
Football Championship Subdivision national tackling leaders
(Players ranked on per-game average)
Player, class, school, avg., games
1. Antonio Jenkins, So., UAPB, 13.8, 4
2. Jer-ryan Harris, Sr., UAPB, 12.8, 5
3. Stephon Robertson, Sr. James Madison, 12.0, 6
Tie-4. Alex Green, So. Valparaiso, 11.8, 5
Tie-4. Mike Cook, Sr., Robert Morris, 11.8, 5