PINE BLUFF -- Arkansas-Pine Bluff Coach Monte Coleman walked off the practice field Tuesday afternoon sweating through his gray T-shirt following his team's second workout of the season.
The Golden Lions went for more than two hours in shorts and helmets, and Coleman laughed when asked to gauge the team's progress after two days.
"We've got a long way to go," the seventh-year head coach said.
That's likely true, considering UAPB is trying to replace 13 starters from a year ago. But there is reason for optimism this year, even after struggling to a 2-9 finish in 2013.
Approximately 90 players suited up for Tuesday's workout, and that number is expected to grow when classes begin Aug. 25. That in itself is a measure of improvement after academic eligibility issues derailed the 2013 season before it even began.
UAPB entered last season coming off its first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship since 1966 but opened the season against Arkansas State with a depleted roster that was missing more than 10 starters because of academic concerns.
Some players, like linebacker Antonio Jenkins and receiver Isiah Ferguson, gained eligibility the next week. Others didn't, and the Golden Lions lost their first seven games while sputtering to their worst season in almost three decades.
It was a season senior quarterback Ben Anderson said will always be remembered for the wrong reasons.
"I just say it was a learning experience," Anderson said. "I just hope the team learned from it and see that it can happen to anybody."
It looks like UAPB has. Anderson said all the players' day-to-day routines have changed over the past year. Now coaches mention academics at the end of every meeting, and there are more meetings with academic liaisons and professors.
"We're putting things in place, and the administration has done an outstanding job of assisting athletics to make sure that we do have those things in place so we don't slip through the cracks," Coleman said.
Some players who were ineligible last year have returned. Junior defensive end Demarcus Berry was set to start last year but was ruled ineligible and watched the home games from the stands at Golden Lion Stadium.
"It was very weird," Berry said, "just sitting in the stands, not being able to do anything."
Berry figures to help this season by anchoring a defensive line that includes senior tackle Troy Goss and junior end Caleb Ealy, who started last year in place of Berry. UAPB's defensive line is 13 players deep and its offensive line includes 14 players, which is the result of the team's offseason efforts to build depth on both sides of the ball.
UAPB also gets wide receiver Willie Young and running back Aaron Lagrone back from ineligibility this year, two offensive weapons that could mean Anderson won't have to do as much this year.
Anderson, a four-year starter from Little Rock Parkview, passed for 2,777 yards last season and rushed for 809 while combining for 29 touchdowns last season. His average of 326.1 total yards per game was sixth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, and he is 1,628 yards away from surpassing 10,000 yards for his career.
"It's not a goal to just shoot for statistics," he said. "Like I told [the team] yesterday, when you try to win the game, you get better stats than just trying to pile stats. That just all came from trying to win the game. We didn't win but two, but I put my best foot forward every game."
While the number of bodies has led to a higher expectation, players are taking a measured approach just like their coach leading up to the Aug. 30 season opener at Texas State.
"That's where it's all going to fit together," Berry said. "When we're going through camp, we're just going to come out and do what we need to do to try to get back to where we were in 2012."
Sports on 08/06/2014
Print Headline: Numbers back up, along with expectations