By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Even before their stadium's new purple and gray synthetic turf was installed this spring, Central Arkansas coaches began to feel its impact.
The delight of high school recruits said it all to them.
"It's going to give us some identity," head coach Clint Conque said.
UCA ironically announced the addition of the turf on April Fools' Day, but, make no mistake, the Bears hope to get the lift that Eastern Washington did from the debut of its red turf en route to capturing its first FCS title last season.
"More than anything, it can help just springboard some attention," Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin said.
"It just brought us some needed kind of attention and excitement just for our university as a whole.
Not to be lost amid the new turf's installation in Conway is that Central Arkansas has an experienced squad that wants to make its biggest splash through winning the Southland Conference championship.
The title will be up for grabs if, as expected, two-time defending champion Stephen F. Austin comes back to the pack. UCA is an outstanding 36-20 since it started to transition from NCAA Division II to the FCS in 2006, but the new turf, which will feature the purple and gray alternating in 5-yard sections, has put the Bears on the national map.
"When I took this job, you just recognize that each and every year there are high expectations," said Conque, who is in his 12th season at UCA.
The Bears, who return 17 of 22 starters, were boosted by a season-ending win over perennial SLC power McNeese State to finish 7-4 overall and 4-3 in conference games. This year's senior class was part of the 2008 squad that went 10-2 and unbeaten in the conference, although the Bears still were ineligible for the FCS playoffs. They are eligible now.
Headlining the returnees is senior quarterback Nathan Dick, who started two games at the University of Arkansas in 2008 before transferring to UCA. He made the All-SLC second team last season while throwing for 2,589 yards and 12 touchdowns, and completing 63.2 percent of his passes.
Conque saw considerable improvement from Dick during spring practice as the 6- foot-4 signal-caller played faster with his eyes, feet and arms, and understood coverages better.
UCA's offensive line should be much-improved with the return of four senior starters, led by left tackle Matt Dickerson. The Bears use a one-back set, and big-play junior Jackie Hinton unseated Terence Bobo, last year's leading rusher, in the spring. Don't discount Bobo, though, after he led the team with 11 touchdowns last season.
Dominique Croom (42 receptions) is the top returning wide receiver and Marshall Lloyd has moved from the defensive line to try to become a breakout player at tight end.
Speaking of the defense, UCA has had a pipeline of defensive ends - Jacob Ford, Larry Hart and Markell Carter - go to the NFL under Conque. Senior Trey Lippe and junior Larry Duvall aren't on that level, but they should form a solid combination.
But the strength of the defense could be the secondary. Strong safety Jestin Love was the SLC Co-Freshman of the Year after he grabbed six interceptions last season. Also returning are two other starters, junior cornerback Desmond Wilcox and junior free safety Radariu Winston.
"I like our athleticism, I really do," Conque said.
UCA has received plenty of attention for its new turf and is putting the finishing touches on it. The Bears will open the season on their purple and gray field on Sept. 1 against Henderson State.
They will play at two FBS programs, Louisiana Tech (Sept. 10) and Arkansas State (Sept. 24). Five of the Bears' 11 games will be at Estes Stadium.
"The players love it," Conque said of the turf.
"At the end of the day, it's about winning football games. Recruiting is year- round, 365 days a year. Everything that we do in our program is about recruiting and attracting quality players so they can go out on Saturday night and win football games for us. We've been knocking at the door."
The rest of the Southland Conference may not want to open it for Central Arkansas.