For the second straight summer, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff secondary is getting used to life without Ryan Shaw.
This would have been the Monticello High graduate’s senior year — after he missed 2013 as one of several academic casualties for the Golden Lions. After rejoining the team for spring drills, Shaw left the team again, but this time for reasons not even coach Monte Coleman could offer.
So, Byron Anderson begins his first season as UAPB’s secondary coach with a new-look unit that includes only one returning starter in free safety Kevin Rucker Jr. and no seniors.
“It is a new look, for me personally and a look for some of the new guys,” said Anderson, who was a graduate assistant at UAPB in 2011. “I think we have a great core of guys. Sometimes, it takes a little time to learn the stuff, but we’re getting on the right page.”
Starting cornerbacks Gyovanni Harvey and David Watson completed their eligibility, while freshman strong safety Tavion Garrison did not return to the team for unknown reasons.
That leaves left corner Andre Mitchell and strong safety Jared Turner, who were backups last season, as the only seasoned vets along with Rucker in the back of UAPB’s traditional 4-3-4 defense. Among them in 2013, 62 tackles — Rucker had the most with 27 — and two interceptions.
They’ve lost a highly decorated defender in Shaw and a hard-hitter in Harvey, who made five tackles for losses, so Anderson’s instilling a “play fast” mentality in his bunch.
“Sometimes, when you play fast, you make the small mistakes, but you make the big plays playing fast,” Anderson said. “Play fast and play through the mistakes; that’s my number one thing.”
Along with a fast pace, Mitchell — who’s better known for his return specialty — said the defensive backs are bringing more physicality to the game.
“Me and Rucker need to take over because we’re the oldest people out there,” the junior said. “As long as we take over and lead the freshmen in the right direction, we’ll be all right.”
The Golden Lions boast a little more experience in the secondary with redshirt sophomore Kyle Noel and redshirt freshman Dave White, who’s solidly competing for a starting role. So far in preseason camp, they’ve been able to stick with a highly talented offense as they try to improve on last year’s 206.3 passing yards allowed, which was third-best in the SWAC.
The upperclassmen may give a new look, but they’ve found their chemistry.
“We’re truly like brothers,” Rucker said. “Not saying we haven’t been in the past, but we’re really bonding this year. There haven’t been many deep plays. If there is a deep play, we’re all just patting each other on the back. We’re not being negative. Coach Anderson came in positive, so we’re being positive. That’s what we’re being taught.”
As Anthony Jones’ offense progresses, so does the defense, he added.
“We’re adjusting to them,” Rucker said. “A lot of offenses are kind of similar. We have great talents like other teams do. Ben Anderson, a great quarterback, one of the top quarterbacks in the SWAC, he gives us a great look. Just being disciplined, being able to see what’s going on and just reading the O-line, it makes us better getting prepared.”