Ladarius Eckwood paused for a few seconds when he was asked what is the one thing he points the struggles of Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s football season to.
“I guess the lack of team chemistry and discipline this year,” the senior wide receiver said. “We really didn’t follow rules or things like that, the things that the coaches asked us to do. We tried to do it our own way and then we ended up having a losing season.”
The consequences were felt from the start of the season, when at least 13 players were not yet cleared to play, many of them because of academic ineligibility. Some eventually got to see action, but seven of them — including six starters from the 2012 SWAC championship team — have been lost for the entire year.
“With all the guys who are ineligible, the key players on defense, Ryan Shaw, Sean Robison, D-Lee (Damien Lee) and (Demarcus) Berry, and Willie (Young), JB (Justin Billings) and (Aaron) Lagrone on offense, that kind of hurt us this year.”
Eckwood isn’t the only senior who points to such a personnel loss as the biggest reason for the Golden Lions’ downfall.
“I guess the guys just letting us down, just not being eligible,” linebacker Jer-ryan Harris said.
With a 2-8 record (2-6 in SWAC), the senior class is now left wondering what might have been, not even a full 12 months after they hoisted the championship trophy in Birmingham, Ala.
What if UAPB could have gotten over the hump in close games? What if all the players who participated in preseason camp were available during the season? What if the Lions hadn’t become just comfortable with winning last year’s title?
“We’re still living off last year and we’re comfortable with things, but it’s a learning experience,” Eckwood said.
To this day, neither UAPB officials nor coach Monte Coleman have confirmed other causes of the players’ ineligibility. Athletic director Lonza Hardy Jr. said earlier in the season there were no mistakes on the part of UAPB’s compliance office in getting players cleared.
But it was evident early on the Lions had difficulty trying to overcome so many key losses. Turning to younger and inexperienced players to fill roles, they weren’t competitive against Arkansas State or McNeese State and lost their first five SWAC games by a total of 36 points.
Harris does think the Lions have learned from the struggles.
“I definitely think everybody’s been more accountable now,” Harris said. “I mean, those guys (who are ineligible for the season) were good examples. They were not only leaders, they were really productive and integral parts of the team. To see that would happen to them, the younger guys — the older guys, too — just all realized that could be them. It makes you step up and try harder in class.”
Now, the seniors — and graduate student Thomas Winters — are down to their final game in a UAPB uniform, as they prepare to play at Prairie View A&M on Saturday. For some, it’s been a disappointing year not just from the record, but in personal contributions.
Eckwood has only eight catches for 131 yards in eight games, a season after he led the team in receiving. He moved from X- to Y-receiver, where he hasn’t been as productive, and he’s also been limited in recent weeks with a foot contusion.
“I’ve been hurt since the Texas Southern game,” Eckwood said. “So, I haven’t been able to do a whole lot this year. And then, (I’m) not getting the ball this year like I wanted to, so it’s been really disappointing to me. All I can do is stay focused and pray.”
Winters, who’s played at UAPB every season Coleman has been the head coach — since 2008 — wasn’t cleared to play until the week of the Oct. 12 Texas Southern game. He wasn’t sure what his holdup was, but he earned his bachelor’s degree in May.
“I had some ups and some downs,” he said, reflecting on his long collegiate career. “I had good times, I had bad times. The storm isn’t over. … When you got God first, God’s going to take you where you want to go.”
Since the Texas Southern game, Winters has caught 11 passes for 144 yards. But statistics don’t drive him.
“I’m a ballplayer,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
Harris doesn’t put much emphasis on stats, either, although at one point this season he led the entire Football Championship Subdivision in tackles per game. Currently ranked eighth with 10.8, Harris did not play last Saturday at Alabama A&M with a shin injury, but he’s expected to go against Prairie View.
Statistics or no statistics, Harris knows he has a little more to play for as a senior.
“They always say, play every game like it’s your last, and this is really my last,” he said. “You give it that effort. It’s something in you that gives you that last effort.
“This is very important. This is the last game, which makes it that much important. On top of that, we need this win.”