UCA: Bears dominant at home

Conference: Southland Conference
Coach: Clint Conque
2012 Record: 9-3 (6-1), advanced to second round of FCS playoffs

The University of Central Arkansas Bears open their 2013 season Thursday at home at Estes Stadium against University of the Incarnate Word.

The Bears roar into 2013 with continued momentum and motivation after winning a share of the Southland Conference title last year and reaching the NCAA FCS playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Senior Wynrick Smothers returns at quarterback after passing for 3,103 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago. Although UCA will be without graduated receivers Jesse Grandy and Dominique Croom, Dezmin Lewis will step up as Smothers’ main target in 2013. The junior amassed 717 yards and eight scores last season. Juniors Jacoby Walker, Clay Murphy and Damien Watts round out the receiving corps.

The Bears lost Jackie Hinton and Terence Bobo to graduation, but Walker and senior Willie Matthews may see more time in the backfield.

“Our goal is to score 31 points,” coach Clint Conque said. “Statistically, we have a 94-percent win percentage when we score 31 points. We always expect to score a lot of points.”

Eight starters return to a defense that allowed 22.5 points per game a year ago. Seniors Justin Heard and Jestin Love provide a one-two punch on defense and love to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Heard led the team with 100 tackles last fall, while Love finished second on the chart with 91 stops.

Sophomore Dillion Winfrey — a member of the inaugural 501 Football Team — led the team in interceptions a year ago. Jonathan Woodard plays aggressively and punished opposing quarterbacks  for seven sacks in 2012. The sophomore forced two fumbles and returned a fumble for a touchdown last year.

“Our expectations are really high,” Conque said. “We have recruited really well and this could be one of the best teams since I’ve been at UCA. We have excellent depth on defense and are a little bigger and a little stronger.”

Junior Eddie Camara maintains his kicking duties after converting 48 of 49 extra point attempts and 14 of 19 field goal attempts. Junior newcomer Jonathan Harrison, a College All American, will assume the punting duties.

Recently chosen second overall in the preseason coaches and sports information directors polls, much of UCA’s success over the past two seasons can be attributed to the team’s home record — an outstanding 11-0 on the school’s purple-and-gray turf.

“Our home crowds have been really good the last several years,” Conque said. “It creates a really tough environment [for opposing teams]. The players recognize very clearly that for us to win a third conference championship in six years, we have to win at home and then win a couple on the road. That’s the recipe or path to win a third conference championship.”

With many teams improving both in strength and experience, the Southland Conference appears to be much tougher for the Bears this season.

“There are no Saturdays off,” Conque said. “Everyone across the league has improved since last year. Most games are decided by one score or less. It’s a very deep league — very balanced — and the most competitive since we’ve been in the conference.”

The Bears, ranked No. 6 in the FCS Coaches Poll, begin the defense of their Southland Conference title Thursday by playing host to the University of the Incarnate Word Cardinals. The Cardinals are new to the Southland Conference, but will not play a full schedule until 2014 and will not be fully eligible for a SLC title until 2017. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Estes Stadium.

Aug. 29 Incarnate Word
Sept. 7 at Colorado
Sept. 14 at Tennessee-Martin
Sept. 21 at Missouri State
Oct. 5 McNeese State
Oct. 12 Nebraska-Kearney
Oct. 19 at Lamar
Oct. 26 Stephen F. Austin
Nov. 2 at Northwestern (La.) State
Nov. 9 Southeastern Louisiana
Nov. 16 at Nicholls State
Nov. 23 Sam Houston State