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PINE BLUFF -- Cedric Thomas knows he can't have a repeat of last year on the defensive side of the ball.

The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff football team ranked dead last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in scoring defense, allowing 43.2 points per game, and total defense, giving up 558.1 yards per game, in 2018. The Golden Lions finished tied for last in the SWAC Western division at 2-9 overall and 1-6 in league play in Thomas' first year as head coach.

Since then, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Juan Navarro departed for North Carolina Central University, along with offensive line coach Lonnie Teasley.

Thomas poached ex-Arkansas State University star Jon Bradley, who played four seasons in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions, and Jason Onyebuagu from the NCCU staff. Bradley is the Golden Lions' new defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Onyebuagu replaced Teasley as the offensive line coach and also will serve as the run game coordinator.

But the biggest change is that Thomas, a former cornerback at UAPB, now will be handling the defensive play-calling duties, something that he felt he had to do after last season's problems.

"I just said if the ship's gonna go down, it's gonna go down with me here driving it," Thomas said. "I know a lot of these offensive guys and they [are] great minds, and I just kind of said, 'Hey look, this is who I am.' So I said let me get in the lab this spring and take it by storm. We're excited about the growth and me calling the plays, but I also get a lot from Coach Bradley, Coach [Torenzo] Quinn (defensive backs) and Coach [Deion] Roberson (defensive line) -- guys that have been with me."

Prior to taking the head coaching job at his alma mater, Thomas was the defensive coordinator at Alcorn State from 2016-17. His Braves' defense in 2017 ranked second in the SWAC in pass defense efficiency, third in both scoring and rushing defense, and fourth in turnovers forced.

Now Thomas is hoping a change of voice can produce similar results, but it's still going to require a substantial turnaround.

"He's been letting us loose. He's letting us play more aggressive," senior defensive end Jalen Steward said. "Stuff last year [that] we would just sit back on, now we're just attacking. I think now, we're playing to our strengths.

"We all felt like he should've been the guy calling the plays. We feel like we're a No. 1 defense with him calling the plays this year."

The Golden Lions have six returning starters on defense, including Steward, who was named first team All-SWAC last year. The Memphis native finished sixth in the SWAC in sacks (7) and second in tackles for loss (16).

If UAPB is going to turn things around defensively, it will have to start in the trenches. Last season, the Golden Lions allowed 260.3 rushing yards per game, 6.8 yards per carry and 34 rushing touchdowns.

UAPB has added depth along the defensive line, including three junior-college transfers, and many returning players have put on more muscle. Steward, for example, has added 15 pounds since last season.

Thomas said the defensive line has 15-16 players who are "functional," and all four projected starters have either started or seen significant playing time. Thomas is also high on junior-college transfers in junior defensive tackle DeCarlo Hamilton, who stands 6-4, 300 pounds, and junior defensive end Christian Brown, who's 6-5, 225.

Thomas is itching to see what Bradley can do for the program as the new defensive line coach.

"I got a steal," Thomas said. "I got the best D-line coach in America that fits what we do."

The Golden Lions' defense also will rely heavily on the likes of redshirt sophomore defensive end Xavier Mitchell, senior defensive tackle Joshua Wallace, redshirt junior linebacker A.C. Gilliam, junior cornerback Shawn Steele and redshirt senior cornerback Henri Murphy, a Pine Bluff native who transferred from Virginia Tech before the 2018 season. Murphy made a position change, switching from wide receiver.

It won't take long this year for Thomas to find out if his rejuvenated defense truly has made strides. UAPB, which was picked to finish last in the SWAC West, opens the season Aug. 31 at Big 12 contender TCU in Fort Worth.

As for what he expects out of his unit this season, Thomas was direct.

"I promise you,we won't be last this year in defense," Thomas said.

Sports on 08/09/2019

Print Headline: UAPB coach vows defense will ascend

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