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College coaches get glimpse of football prospects at UCA

by Mitchell Gladstone | June 7, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

CONWAY -- A steady rain came down on the striped turf of Estes Stadium as several hundred high schoolers lined the ramp and concourse, waiting to sign in.

It wasn't a drenching by any means, but it was more than enough to put a damper on the morning as the University of Central Arkansas welcomed prospects back on campus for the first time in over a year.

And just as Bears Coach Nathan Brown headed down to the field, the weather relented and a little sun began to poke through the overcast skies. After a challenging stretch of nearly 15 months, that was just an added bonus for everyone in attendance.

UCA hosted its first prospect camp of the summer Sunday, featuring more than 400 players from at least 10 different states, capping the first week since the start of the covid-19 pandemic in which NCAA schools were allowed to bring recruits onto their campuses.

Although the Bears' coaching staff was responsible for running the majority of the drills, there were coaches representing all three NCAA divisions including Missouri, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Ouachita Baptist, Arkansas Tech, Harding, Henderson State, Southern Arkansas and Hendrix.

"This is a great opportunity, especially when you get 400-plus student-athlete prospects on campus, trying to earn a scholarship and get seen," Brown said. "We're excited as the University of Central Arkansas, but I know a lot of these coaches are excited about seeing these kids as well, so we're just blessed to have the opportunity."

The camp was split into two sessions -- the first two hours were for quarterbacks, running backs, pass-catchers, linebackers and defensive backs and the latter half was exclusively for offensive and defensive linemen.

Each of the two sessions began and ended with Brown gathering the players at midfield and emphasizing what he and the UCA staff are looking for as they begin to put together their 2022 recruiting class and beyond.

Academics are undoubtedly a priority, but he added that leadership and effort are things that can help a player stand out, especially while in such a large crowd of potential targets.

"They wouldn't be here if they didn't have talent," Brown said. "You want to see kids that are good teammates, that are going to go hard -- almost stick out in a positive way by supporting the other prospects that are here. ... We look for intangibles a lot, so when you get kids for a short amount of time, if they can show off the intangibles they do have, that's what we look for as much as the numbers."

One of those guys was Conway senior wideout Manny Smith, who showed flashes during the early session despite measuring in at 5-foot-6. Smith ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and made multiple jumping grabs during the 1-on-1 drills to wrap up the morning.

Last season, Smith shined as both a running back and wide receiver for the Wampus Cats, who reached the Class 7A state semifinals before losing to eventual champion Bryant.

And after many months of just working out with his Conway teammates, Smith was eager to get back in front of coaches up close -- he attended a similar camp earlier this week at Memphis and has several others lined up including an upcoming event at Arkansas State University.

"It's super cool to [show off in your hometown] because the community can support you," said Smith, who participated in a UCA camp two years ago as a sophomore. "I took a lot of stuff from the first camp I came up here ... A lot of people sleep on me [because of my height], so it pushes me to work harder than everyone else."

Several underclassmen turned heads as well. Little Rock Christian quarterback Walker White began the day with the No. 3 group of QBs but was throwing with the top collection of gunslingers by session's end.

That No. 1 group also included in-state prospects Warren's Riley Cornish, Hot Springs Lakeside's Jordan Mills and Monticello's Stran Smith.

White, the younger brother of University of Arkansas wide receiver John David (Pulaski Academy) and infielder Zac (Joe T. Robinson), is entering his sophomore year with the Warriors but will be their starter this fall and should get lots of attention when he makes stops at power-conference programs Oklahoma, Texas Christian, Arkansas and Alabama later this summer.

"I'm just trying to show them what I am now and what I can be with my work ethic," White said. "Knowing I'm a sophomore, [I want coaches to see] how much I can grow, how much more I can develop my arm and my knowledge of the game."

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