Smith returns as UCA quarterback

No football coach, at any level, wants to be down to his third-string quarterback before the halfway point of the season, but that’s exactly where University of Central Arkansas’ Nathan Brown found himself a year ago.

Quarterback Breylin Smith, in just his fourth start as a Bear, broke his ankle in the fourth quarter of UCA’s game at Sam Houston State on Sept. 29 in Huntsville, Texas. It was an early battle between Top 25 programs picked first and third in the Southland Conference preseason poll.

No problem. Brown called on junior Kirk Baugh, who had seen action in 18 games over his first three seasons, including a redshirt season in 2017. But Baugh, from White Hall, injured his shoulder two plays later. He remained in the game long enough to toss a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Short that tied the game at 31-31 with 2:20 remaining and sent it to overtime. The Bears eventually had a field goal blocked in overtime and the Bearkats connected on a 34-yard game-winner.

The University of Central Arkansas Bear are returning valuable experience at quarterback in Breylin Smith. (Photo courtesy of UCA Athletics)

That dropped the quarterbacking duties for the remainder of the 2018 season squarely into the lap of redshirt freshman Luke Hales of Greenwood, with backup help from true freshman BeSean McCray of Orlando, Fla.

“Obviously you don’t want to lose your starting quarterback in the fourth game of the season,’ said Brown, “much less your backup quarterback in the fourth game. But it certainly helps when you have a veteran coach like (offensive coordinator) Ken Collums coaching that room,” said Brown. “Just his experience of coaching quarterbacks, and obviously playing the position as well, and obviously calling our plays. He’s in the room with those guys day in and day out. So I understand as a former quarterback how important that is.

“I thought we did a great job on the offensive side of the ball by sustaining success through a difficult situation.”

Hales, who was recruited to UCA by Brown when he was still the Bears’ offensive coordinator, came out of the gate like a four-year starter the very next week, throwing for 304 yards and five touchdowns as UCA rolled past Houston Baptist 66-35 at First Security Field at Estes Stadium in the first game after SHSU.

Hales added his second five-touchdown game in Week 7 against Northwestern State and tallied another 300-yard passing game in Week 10 against Incarnate Word. For the season, Hales finished with 1,857 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, with eight interceptions. He completed 120 of 247 passes in his seven starts at quarterback.

“First of all, he comes from a great high school program at Greenwood and was tutored well by one of the best high school coaches there is in Coach Rick Jones,” said Brown. “So he has a pedigree. He has what I call a gym-rat mentality. He loves football, he loves the Xs and Os, he loves the strategic side of things, and that goes a long way as a quarterback. He has the mental capability to do as much as you want with him.

“But as far as last year, he was coming off a couple of shoulder surgeries himself, and you wouldn’t have expected him to play at all. And then to play that well. I thought he did a great job in the last seven games, going 4-3 as the starter, and really, putting us in a position to have an opportunity in the fourth quarter to win every game.

“Luke doing what he did the last seven games last year, that’s invaluable. When you have that kind of experience under your belt, that’s going to bode well for you no matter what comes at you this year.”

While Brown and Collums had to change their plans on the fly a year ago due to the injuries, the silver lining was it produced three experienced quarterbacks heading into the 2019 season. Smith is once again the starter after throwing for 1,009 yards and six touchdowns in three-plus games a year ago. Most impressive for the first-year starter was a league-best completion percentage of 68.8 percent at the time of his injury.

Smith returned for a somewhat limited role in spring practice and has looked completely healthy in summer workouts and is ready to resume his role as the leader of the UCA offense, according to Brown, a record-setting UCA quarterback himself.

“When you look at Breylin, he’s just a special player,” said Brown, who holds nearly every UCA passing record from his playing days. “He’s just an unbelievable talent. He has a great ability to diagnose a defense during the play. And just the physical ability to throw the football.

“And he has the IT factor. And when I say the IT factor, that’s something you can’t coach. That’s something you’re either born with or you don’t have it. People gravitate toward Breylin, they listen to him when he speaks. He leads by example but he can also be a vocal leader. He can be the rah-rah, happy guy when things are going well or he can be the guy who sets the tone when something negative needs to be said.

“And that’s something I can’t coach, and that’s something Coach Collums can’t coach into him. You either have it or you don’t. And Breylin has it.”

Baugh provides an experienced senior backup who has seen a lot during his UCA career.

“Kirk Baugh has played big snaps for us here in the past,” said Brown. “He was kind of thrust into the same kind of situation as a true freshman when both our quarterbacks (Hayden Hildebrand/Taylor Reed) got hurt. He had to play some significant snaps as a true freshman. So he’s got some big-time experience over the course of the last four years.”

Waiting in the wings are a pair of talented quarterbacks who bring another dimension to the UCA offense. Redshirt freshman BeSean McCray of Orlando, Fla., played in two games last season under the new NCAA redshirt rules and rushed four times for 21 yards and was 0 for 2 passing. McCray was a three-star recruit out of Dr. Phillips High School and was rated the No. 123 dual-threat quarterback in the nation coming out of high school where he threw for 2,208 yards (20 touchdowns) and rushed for 608 yards (8 touchdowns) as a senior.

“BeSean has an unbelievable talent,” said Brown. “He’s as fast and athletic a quarterback as we’ve had here. Now he’s slender in build and he’s a smaller stature guy who has gotten bigger in the weight room since he got here. When you talk about a football player having a tool belt, he possesses tools that not many quarterbacks at this level of football have. He’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball.

“He is what I would call a true dual threat. He can beat you with his arm but he can definitely beat you with his legs. He adds a dynamic to that room, and to our team, that not many people can. And we’ll use that in a lot of different ways.” 

The Bears added a talented freshman from Fayetteville High School in Darius Bowers (6-2, 185), who threw for 2,991 yards and 27 touchdowns – with just two interceptions – as a senior and was the Class 7A-West Player of the Year in both 2017 and 2018.

“Darius comes from another great Arkansas high school program in Fayetteville High School,” said Brown. “He was highly decorated prep player with a lot of records, and we know what kind of quarterbacks come out of Fayetteville High. He’s got a chance to be very special in the years to come. To me, he possesses a lot of the qualities that Breylin Smith and Luke Hales have. I really look forward to seeing him continue to grow in this program.”

Brown said he has confidence in all his quarterbacks heading into the 2019 season opener against Western Kentucky on Aug. 29, and that goes back to basic philosophy.

“Quarterback, that’s what is going to make you tick,” said Brown. “When you have solid quarterback play, when you look at championship teams, you usually see very efficient play from the quarterback position. I don’t care a whole lot about gaudy numbers or setting the record book on fire. I care about efficiency.

“When we ask you to throw the ball, are you accurate, how is your completion percentage, are you making the right reads, doing what your coaches tell you to do. And I think our quarterbacks understand that, and I know Coach Collums understands that, because that’s the way he coaches.

“When it comes down to it, I want a quarterback who’s going to elevate the play of our whole offense, and I think we have three or four guys in that room that have that ability.”