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Golden Lions looked down upon in preseason poll

by ERICK TAYLOR ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | July 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff ended the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s first-ever spring football season as the West Division champions, had only a handful of players leave through the transfer portal and will have a slew of key returners when fall practices begin Aug. 6.

Yet, the league doesn’t appear quite ready to deem the Golden Lions a significant threat once the 2021 fall season kicks off.

UAPB was picked to finish fifth in the West Division — only one spot ahead of last place Texas Southern — by SWAC coaches and athletic directors in the preseason poll that was released Tuesday during the conference’s media day at the Sheraton Birmingham hotel.

“I guess some people’s minds don’t change overnight,” a laughing UAPB Coach Doc Gamble said. “It’s a process in everything, I believe. So for our guys, we know what our expectations are. For those who don’t know us, I can’t think for them, I can’t vote for them.

“The last time I checked, they eliminated voting for who’s champions and who’s not. It’s done on the field, so we have to show up and play.” That’s precisely what UAPB did five months ago when it opened up an unprecedented spring schedule with a road victory over Southern en route to earning a berth in the SWAC title game for the first time since 2012. The Golden Lions eventually lost 40-33, to Alabama A&M, but the prospects of UAPB making a trip to the final in December seemed to be promising, particularly with so many regulars, like quarterback Skyler Perry and wide receiver Josh Wilkes, returning.

None of that seemed to matter to the pollsters.

Alcorn State, which opted not to play last spring after winning back-to-back SWAC crowns in 2018 and 2019 and moved from the East Division after Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman officially joined the conference earlier this month, was tabbed to win the West. Southern was selected second, followed by Grambling State and Prairie View.

Defending league champion Alabama A&M was projected to capture the East title, with Florida A&M coming in second. Jackson State, which is in its second year under NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, is picked to finished third while Alabama State, Bethune-Cook-man and Mississippi Valley State were selected fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

One of the first questions thrown at Gamble on Tuesday centered around the projections for the Golden Lions. UAPB beat both Southern and Grambling State on the road in March before clinching the division by knocking off Prairie View A&M in what ended up being the regular-season finale. All three of those teams were picked to finish ahead of UAPB.

What might have been more puzzling about the Golden Lions was the fact that they dominated the preseason All-SWAC selections. Of the 50 slots available, UAPB occupied 11 of them, which was more than any other team.

The Golden Lions placed five players on the first team and six on the second. Senior Tyrin Ralph garnered nods on both teams, one as a return specialist and the other as a receiver.

“We’re picked to be second to last on our side, so I guess we’re still hunting,” said Gamble, who was joined by all-conference players offensive lineman Mark Evans and junior linebacker Isaac Peppers at the media day. “Our mindset is not going to change. We’ve just got to go out and continue to change other people’s thought process of us. And we’ll do that this fall.” Gamble spoke at length about how the mentality for UAPB is no longer that of a team merely satisfied by keeping games close. Instead, he noted that the Golden Lions expect to win on a weekly basis.

“Honestly, you only build confidence in yourself,” Peppers explained. “If you don’t have confidence starting off, you’re not going to have confidence in the end. I feel as if our confidence was always there, but it just needed to be expressed.

“We always had it so it’s through the roof.” UAPB will have a reason to be just as confident as they were five months ago. Perry, who accounted for nearly 1,500 yards of total offense and 16 touchdowns last season, will be blocked by one of the conference’s most experienced offensive lines. Defensively, the Golden Lions will be anchored by Peppers, who is coming off a season in which he registered 33 tackles, including 7.5 sacks.

Gamble pointed out that he lost seven players to the transfer portal, four of whom saw significant playing time, but he anticipates others to step into those roles seamlessly to help his team pick up right where it left off in the spring after the SWAC decided against having a 2020 fall season.

“We’ve got to continue to win and play good football,” Gamble said. “We’re going to continue to do that. No. 1 for us is to make our own community happy, make our university happy. Whatever all the other naysayers say, it doesn’t matter.

“What’s important right now are the guys that I’ll be seeing everyday in the building, watching their progression and watching our group with this year’s team.”

2021 SWAC preseason poll

EAST

TEAM POINTS

  1. Alabama A&M ...............................122
  2. Florida A&M..................................109
  3. Jackson State.................................. 80
  4. Alabama State................................. 76
  5. Bethune-Cookman.......................... 71
  6. Mississippi Valley State.................. 25

WEST

TEAM POINTS

  1. Alcorn State...................................128
  2. Southern........................................108
  3. Grambling State.............................. 85
  4. Prairie View A&M ........................... 78
  5. UAPB...................................68
  6. Texas Southern............................... 37

UAPB’s All-SWAC preseason selections

FIRST TEAM

POS. PLAYER

OL Mark Evans WR Josh Wilkes LB Kolby Watts DB Jalon Thigpen RS Tyrin Ralph

SECOND TEAM

QB Skyler Perry OL Noah Hayes OL Atondre Smith WR Tyrin Ralph LB Isaac Peppers K Zack Piwniczka

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