RB Powell taking next step with Bears as well as family

University of Central Arkansas running back ShunDerrick Powell and his son, ShunDerrick Jr., pose for a photo. Powell said of his son being born: “You’re happy and you’re scared at the same time because you don’t know what to do, but you’re so happy he’s here. But then you got to take that next step.” (Photo Courtesy of UCA Athletics)

CONWAY -- ShunDerrick Powell isn't a man of few or many words, rather falling somewhere in between the cliched spectrum.

The University of Central Arkansas junior running back does have a knack for knowing the right words to say.

The right words after a blowout win over Texas College, where he dominated with just three touches. The right words after a close loss to Tarleton State that he had to pull himself from with an injury. The right words to describe the friendly but competitive relationship with fellow running backs Darius Hale and Kylin James.

But when that one moment, his first glimpse of his newborn son, crossed his mind, Powell was rendered speechless.

All he could muster was a smile, stretching ear to ear, with the faintest of laughs, as if it was funny just how perfect one moment could be.

"You're happy and you're scared at the same time because you don't know what to do, but you're so happy he's here," Powell said. "But then you got to take that next step."

Family reunited

Powell and his fiance, Mercedes Hernandez, welcomed ShunDerrick Jr. to their lives in April, shortly after Powell began spring practice in Conway with UCA -- his new home and team.

Powell and Hernandez met at Hoxie High School, where Powell transferred from Jonesboro before his junior year to seek out playing time on the football field.

After spending his freshman college season at North Alabama apart, Hernandez moved in with Powell in Florence, Ala., prior to the 2022 season.

Powell set records for the Lions that season with Hernandez watching. He was a Walter Payton Award finalist, led the ASUN in rushing with 1,508 yards and 18 touchdowns to break the North Alabama record in both categories. He was named the co-ASUN Offensive Player of the Year.

But with a son on the way and the Lions set to have a third head coach in as many seasons, Powell decided to enter the transfer portal. Almost instantly, texts, calls and email came his way. Powell eventually heard from 22 schools, including nearly every ASUN school, Arkansas State University and Memphis.

One of the first messages came from UCA running backs coach Nelson Gunnell, who convinced Powell to join what was already the conference's deepest running back room, led by Hale and James.

A key selling point for UCA was its proximity to Jonesboro, where Powell's parents Derrick and Glenda live, and its willingness to accommodate his son.

"If I was to go to another school, I wouldn't be able to bring my son," Powell said. "He would have to stay [in Arkansas]. My fiance didn't want that because she wanted the baby to be around her, and she's going to follow me wherever I go.

"Coach [Nathan] Brown understands how it feels to have a child and how tough it is. So I really thank him for that, for being open. And I know if I need help anytime, he's going to be right there and Gunnell's going to be right there."

This season, Powell has traded the loud noises and late nights of college athletes for the 6 a.m. wake-up calls and diaper changes that come with a baby.

"I'm trying to work around his schedule just to get some sleep time," he said with a laugh.

Powell also said the biggest adjustment of the past 12 months hasn't been learning a new offense or settling into a new town or fitting in with his teammates, it's been finding time to sleep -- followed closely by the shock of getting peed on for the first time.

"It's ridiculous," he said.

With his parents close by, ShunDerrick Jr. spends most weekends in Jonesboro while Powell is playing for the Bears.

Promise kept

In Powell's two seasons with North Alabama, the Lions went 4-18, including a 1-10 campaign in 2022.

One of the main selling points of Central Arkansas over other schools was the chance to play meaningful games late in the season -- like the one UCA has today. The Bears face the Lions at Florence, Ala., with the chance to keep their hopes of winning a United Athletic Conference title alive.

After an ankle injury held Powell to 4 yards on 6 carries in last week's 25-23 loss to Tarleton State, he is back to full strength for today.

"I love being on a winning team," Powell said. "I was on one in high school, so I know the feeling of being on a winning team. When I was losing, I didn't like the feeling. A lot of guys was like, 'Just get yours,' and I really wasn't about just getting mine."

Through eight games, Powell is averaging 136.6 all-purpose yards per game. He has 882 rushing yards, averages 110.2 rushing yards per game and 8.1 yards per carry. He leads the FCS in yards per rush and is in the top 10 in other statistics.

Like father, but better

When he's not taking care of his grandson, Derrick Powell's coaching of ShunDerrick is the same as it has been since he was in Pop Warner. Each week the father and son communicate on FaceTime and go over the past week's game; what Powell did and didn't do well, what he has to improve on.

Derrick, who played for Hughes High School for Gus Malzahn in the early 1990s, but that's where his football career ended. He coached ShunDerrick and his younger brother Daylon from the moment they began playing football until they reached high school.

"He was the head coach, and we did not lose," ShunDerrick Powell said. "He's always going to be on me, and I thank him for that. He pushes me to re-look at stuff again if I didn't catch it. He's always going to give me pointers."

That's just one example of a message Derrick has been giving his sons since they were little, that he wants them to be better than he was -- at everything. But it wasn't until Powell had a son of own that he fully understood the weight of his father's message.

"I really took that and I stuck it with me," Powell said. "Because I know what he means now, making his kids better. I took that and I'm just going to keep pushing it, make my son better than me like my dad wants us to be better than him."

For as long as he can remember, making it to the NFL has been Powell's No. 1 dream. It's why he listened to his father's criticism. It's why his family moved to Hoxie to play for Coach Tom Sears. It's why he's at UCA.

Growing up, Powell's dad worked in a factory and later at a rental car agency. His mother worked with mental health patients.

They are, as much as anything, the reason for Powell's goal. It's also how he plans to repay his parents for all they sacrificed.

"I remember one night, [his dad] said, 'I'm tired. I'm just tired.' My mom's always tired," Powell said. "That's what I want to make up for, no more tiredness. You don't have to wake up anymore and say, 'I got to go to work.' That's what pushes me to be better."

Today’s game


WHEN 4 p.m. Central

WHERE Braly Municipal Stadium, Florence, Ala.

RECORDS UCA: 5-3, 2-1 United Athletic Conference; UNA: 3-6, 1-4