Note: It is unclear where this country will be in the next four weeks, let alone the next four months, but we here at Rock M are going to keep chugging along as normal until proven otherwise. This week we start the 2020 opponent preview series; regardless of when the season starts, most of the stuff in these previews should stay true.
Central Arkansas as a football program has been around since 1901 but didn’t move up to the FCS level until 2007. Because of that, the Bears have claim to three national championships and a whopping 21 conference titles. Now, 17 of those conference titles are either a.) in the 1910s or b.) in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference of the NAIA, the same level where they won their National Championships. They moved up to Division II’s Gulf South Conference in 1993, won it in 2005, and then moved up to FCS’ Southland Conference in 2007, where they have been ever since. Since ‘07 they’ve won the Southland title four times - including two of the past three years - and have made it into the FCS Playoff in five of the past nine years. It’s an excellent FCS program that has promoted their head coaches from within to maintain program culture.
...which makes this a terrible first game for a new coaching staff with a young team, especially one where practices have been either limited or non-existent. FCS teams beat FBS teams all the time and it typically happens when the FBS team is in flux. In fact, UCA beat a SP+ Top 60 Western Kentucky team last year and hung around with a 10-win Hawai’i team. Here’s what the Bears did in 2019:
All four losses were by more than 10 points and they benefited from going 5-0 in one-score games. But success in close games is attributed to good coaching, good quarterback play, and solid special teams, all three of which the Bears had last year. That coaching staff returns mostly intact, lead by third year head coach, and UCA alum, Nathan Brown.
Head Coach: Nathan Brown - 3rd Year - 15-9 (12-6)
Coach Brown is what everybody thinks a coach’s path looks like and what every fan wants their head coach to be. He was a record-breaking quarterback for the Bears from 2005-2008, graduating from Central Arkansas in 2009 (yes, he’s 33! Hello, yes, you’re very old!). After being waived by the NFL’s Jaguars and Saints, he immediately became UCA’s quarterbacks coach, then took over coordinating responsibilities in 2014, eventually getting the head gig in 2018. Here’s all that in color-coded chart form:
For the entirety of the 2010s, UCA has never lost more than 6 games. They’ve won more than 9 games five times and have had winning records in 9 of the past 10 years! Coach Brown was there for all of it and was the head guy during a disappointing 6-5 season and last year’s 9-4 campaign.
- Ken Collums - Offensive Coordinator: Like his boss, Collums also played quarterback for the Bears, setting many of the records in the 90s that Brown later broke in the 2000s. He’s been on the UCA offensive staff for eight years (that’s some good loyalty!).
- Chad Williams - Defensive Coordinator: Williams has been the DC in Conway for two years. He’s bounced around most of FCS with a stop at Middle Tennessee in 2013-2014.
- Ryan Howard - Special Teams Coordinator
- Nelson Gunnell - Running Backs
- Brooks Hollingsworth - Tight Ends
- Gunnar Boykin - Offensive Line
- Tony Davis - Defensive Line
- Taylor Polk - Outside Linebackers
- Chaz Scales - Cornerbacks
- Jacob Sisk - Safeties
The Bears offense is one that has become incredibly common in the college game: quick hitting passes to spread out the defense and open up the run. With an accurate trigger man and reliable receivers the Bears were actually pretty good at throwing the ball; the problem came when they wanted to run. For the year they only averaged 3 yards per carry, with their top two backs barely cracking 1,000 yards combined on the season. The line had difficulty opening up running lanes and gave up a few too many sacks for a quarterback who wasn’t much of a run threat to begin with. But the Bears were good enough passing that they didn’t have to run all that much, and while UCA averaged 28 points a game they were only really limited by elite defenses. Sound like a recent offense you might be immensely familiar with?
Quarterback - Breylin Smith - RS Senior
Smith is a local boy who stayed home and has made good on that decision. After redshirting and watching for the first two years, he was dubbed the starter in 2018; unfortunately he broke his ankle 4 games in and missed the rest of the season. Last year was his first, full year at the helm and he delivered: over 3,700 yards passing with a 64% completion rate and 32 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. He’s not a mobile guy and takes too many sacks but led the Bears to a 1st round-bye in the FCS Playoffs as an 8-seed. Against FBS competition (Western Kentucky & Hawai’i) he went a combined 48-79, 509 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT; he tends to make good, safe throws and would rather take a sack then force a throw. That can be taken advantage of by a good defense but he shouldn’t be underestimated.
Running Back - Kierre Crossley - Senior
Crossley has played “lightning” to Carlos Blackman’s “thunder” for the past three years. Whereas Blackman was a more punishing runner at 6’0” 228 Crossley scats around the field at a stocky 5’8” 180. Blackman is gone now so it’s up to Crossley to expand on his 342 yards from last year. He’s not an explosive threat (3.6 yard average) and his ability to handle a heavy workload is questionable, seeing as he’s never had more than 90 carries in a year. But the Bears do platoon their backs so Crossley will be one of several the Tigers will see.
Wide Receiver - Lujuan Winningham - Junior
One of the reason why the Bears were so good through the air was thanks to two guys: Winningham and now-sophomore Tyler Hudson. These two receivers combined for 105 catches, 1,789 yards, and 20 touchdowns on their own with each averaging over 16 yards per catch. Both guys return and will be the biggest threat for a Tiger secondary that has good experience with the starters but are incredibly thin on the depth chart.
The UCA defense was basically a mirror of their offense, and not in a good way. The Bears threw for 3,807 yards, Bears opponents threw for 3,365 yards. Offense gains 251 first downs, defense gives up 272. Offense throws for 7.64 yards per pass, defense allows 7.43 yards per pass. Bears offense average 5.6 yards per play, Bears defense gives up 5.6 yards per play. Offense scores 45 touchdowns, defense gives up 45 touchdowns. Uncanny! And not great! But what is good is that a...generous...defense is exactly what a young Tiger offense will need. In the case of a shootout you can (hopefully) expect Mizzou to be able to move the ball at will on the Bears. If not...
Defensive Line - Nathan Grant - Senior
Defensive End Nathan Grant had the most tackles on the line with 31 but chipped in 10.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Overall the defense logged 34 sacks in 2019 with seven linemen logging 16.5 of those on their own. None had more than J.W. Jones (5.5) who was an all-or-nothing pressure machine. The Bears sent a lot of different guys to create confusion and havoc but it didn’t always hit home.
Linebacker - T.J. Campbell - Junior
Campbell is the leading tackler among the returning defenders, logging 49 total tackles with 9 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. The linebackers weren’t nearly as active as the safeties were but Campbell was the star backer for 2019. He’s more of a run-stuffer than pass defender but stayed active in the backfield. Keeping an eye on his alignment will be a key for the Tigers’ linemen.
Defensive Back - Cameron Godfrey - RS Sophomore
In his first year at the college level, Godfrey merely recorded 42 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 passes defensed, and an interception. Not bad for a freshman, huh? As previously stated, the safeties were active as hell for the Bears, possibly to cover up for a lackluster linebacking corps. Luckily, Godfrey is the lone safety returning from the 2019 squad so some new, untested faces could be primed for Shawn Robinson (or whoever wins the job) to pick on. Look out for those safety blitzes...
So what does it mean?
Well...you can’t win ‘em all unless you win the first one and this game was scheduled with the intent to nab an easy win. However, as of this writing, the Tigers under the Drinkwitz staff have had 3 practices and not been in the same room for over two months. UCA has also dealt with the same restrictions but returns most of their coaching staff and their best assets on offense and defense in a scheme that hasn’t changed. Missouri will have to rely on either a.) some quick learning or b.) superior talent to muscle past a feisty FCS team. There is no such thing as a “must win game” for a first-year coach in his first game...but it would be in everyone’s best interest to get the W in any way possible.