Even on a University of Central Arkansas roster returning 20 starters in 2021, Bears quarterback Breylin Smith carries experience that stands out.
This fall represents the Conway native's sixth season with the program, and 2021 marks his fourth as the program's starter. Over Smith's previous three seasons, he has completed 62.2% of his passes for 6,594 yards and 57 touchdowns. He also amassed 16 wins in 25 starts.
With Smith under center, UCA has a tested leader running its offense.
"He's been here," UCA Coach Nathan Brown said. "He's a veteran. He's seen a lot of football. He's had a lot of success. And he's going to go down as one of the most elite passers and touchdown quarterbacks in the history of our program. He's as steady as they come."
Smith's steady hand will guide the Bears when UCA opens its season Sept. 4 against Arkansas State University at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro.
The Bears return 13 preseason all-conference selections from a team that finished 5-4 last season.
On June 30, UCA moved from the Southland Conference -- its athletic home since 2007 -- into the Atlantic Sun Conference. Year One in the ASUN won't be a complete transition as the Bears are set to compete for a single season as part of the ASUN-WAC Challenge, a conference made up of fellow ASUN newcomers Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky, as well as former Southland foes Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin.
UCA is familiar with the "Texas Four" it left the Southland with, and the Bears split a pair of games with Eastern Kentucky last fall. In the ASUN-WAC Challenge's preseason poll, the Bears were picked to finish second behind Sam Houston State.
"The dynamic of this year is going to be different," Brown said. "We're traveling to new places and taking on new opportunities and challenges. That's always a good thing. I think our players have been excited about this challenge, and they're looking forward to new opportunities to compete against different schools."
Smith's final season in Conway comes after a down year in 2020, when he completed a career-low 56.1% of his passes, threw 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and averaged 6.0 yards per attempt -- the lowest figure since he became a starter.
"He pressed," Brown said. "Bottom line is expectations were high and Breylin pressed."
Smith's drop off last fall, according to Brown, came down to struggles with preparation during a season played outside of the Southland Conference and affected by covid-19, an issue identified by Smith, Brown and offensive coordinator Ken Collums this offseason.
Brown expects his quarterback to return to form.
"I think if you asked Breylin, he'd be the first to say that he didn't prepare the way he should have to be the caliber of quarterback he is," Brown said. "He was probably the first to admit that. The preparation side is where you're going to see him make the most improvement from 2020 to 2021."
In the backfield, the departure of running back Kierre Crossley and his 5.1 yards per carry leaves an opening for junior Cameron Myers. The 6-1 runner from Plant City, Fla., finished with 66 carries for 263 yards and a score in his debut season while adding 12 receptions.
"[Cameron] has unbelievable skills," Brown said. "The kid is as physically gifted as any running back we've had here. I'm excited about what he brings to the table. He has an opportunity to be a feature back and really run with it."
Redshirt sophomore Marshun Douglas, who rushed for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns last fall, and freshmen backs Darius Hale and Kylin James will also factor into the Bears' running game.
In the passing game, Smith has a pair of weapons in wide receivers Tyler Hudson and Lujuan Winningham.
Hudson, a junior, was the Southland Offensive Player of the Year last season after catching 50 passes for 845 yards and 7 touchdowns. Winningham, a senior, led the Bears with 12 touchdowns on 37 receptions a year ago.
"I haven't been around two guys like that in my coaching career," Brown said, "Both of those guys could play for any school in this country. They're both really special with what they have."
Those two are bolstered by seniors Mitchell Perkinson, Jarrod Barnes and Tobias Enlow.
On defense, UCA expects to create a foundation up front.
"You have to build inside out to be a great defense, and I think our defensive line is very good," Brown said. "That will be our strength."
That strength starts with pass rushers senior J .W. Jones and junior Logan Jessup, and in the interior with Caden and A'Javius Brown, who combined for 10 tackles in the shortened 2020 season. Adding depth inside is junior Jeremiah Gray -- who moves to the interior from the edge -- senior Jalen Bedell and Tulane transfer Davon Wright.
In the secondary, the Bears will cope with the departure of fourth-round draft pick Robert Rochell with a group led by preseason first-team defensive backs Cameron Godfrey -- who led UCA with 11 tackles last fall -- and DeAndre Lamont. Sophomore Tamuarion Wilson and redshirt sophomore Nick Nakwaasah each appeared in seven games last fall, and added security comes from Tulane transfer Willie Langham and Austin Peay transfer Nathan Page.
"We feel like we have as much depth in the defensive backfield as we've had," Brown said. "When you lose a guy like Robert Rochell, but the next season you still have two first-team preseason all-conference defensive backs, it says a lot about the way you've recruited."