Running backs Aaron LaGrone and Draylon Willis were asked if they took it personally that a quarterback led Arkansas-Pine Bluff in rushing last season.
Both declined to comment — with a smile. LaGrone’s and Willis’ position coach, Keith Saine, didn’t seem to mind the statistics.
“What really matters is wins and losses, so whatever’s good for the team,” he said. “If you take a team concept, if (Anderson is) the leading rusher, he’s the leading rusher. They’ve got to put aside personal goals, but then I always tell them, every play is a scoring opportunity. It’s up to you to make sure that play scores.”
Arguably the best run-and-pass threat in the SWAC, Anderson likely could post high rushing numbers again this season. But it was his improved decision-making skills coupled with the youth that was an all-freshman running back corps that factored into ascent to the top of the team rushing charts.
Willis is the only returnee from that 2013 corps, and LaGrone is back from a long absence to lead Saine’s backfield. The leading running backs from last year, Jeremiah Young and Jamie Smith, are not currently with the team.
The 2013 freshmen were forced into action when senior Justin Billings and LaGrone were declared academically ineligible along with a large number of other Golden Lions. Young, whose 526 rushing yards and seven touchdowns led all UAPB running backs — Anderson had 824 yards and nine scores — is still suspended from the team at least until a ruling is made in a sexual indecency with a minor and video voyeurism case against him. Smith and Walter Ashley left the team over the offseason for unknown reasons.
LaGrone, a 1,300-yard rusher at Watson Chapel as a senior in 2010, last played a game in October 2012, when he sustained a separated hip. A 2011 redshirt, he has 132 yards and two touchdowns — which he scored in his last outing — on 32 carries for his career.
“LaGrone still has the explosiveness and speed,” Saine said. “He can be a wideout. He has natural ability and great speed. Now we’re just getting them to learn the offense, try to get him in a leadership role to be an every-down back.”
LaGrone said it’s no pressure to assume leadership duties after missing more than a year of games.
“Just got to come out here and work, play hard, teach the people under me, make sure they’re straight and make sure I’m straight in the new offense,” he said. “Make sure I take care of myself and the guys around me.”
While LaGrone has added about 18 pounds the past two seasons, Wynne native Willis said he lost 20 since the end of 2013. The 200-pounder said getting into shape was his biggest problem as a freshman.
“Pretty much my main goal (was losing the pounds), getting in shape and building some endurance,” said Willis, who had 52 yards on 11 carries in 10 games last year.
UAPB’s backfield is restocked for 2014 with seven newcomers including recent Dollarway graduate Nicholas Woodfork, who originally signed with Arkansas Tech, and former Monticello standout Brian Handley. Rashad Boyd is coming off a redshirt year, while Zanesville, Ohio, product Jamal Gladden and Hot Springs alumnus Dennis Brunson are having good camps, according to Saine.
“They’re getting better every day,” Saine said. “We have a totally new offense. They are adjusting to the new offense and starting to roll with more confidence.
Starting off, they were trying to keep from making a mistake. Now we see them going through it.”