A higher calling


POSTED: Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Rewards are usually reserved for the end of the season.

In Central Arkansas' case, part of the Bears' payoff will come on the front end of the schedule.

The Bears' trip to Hawaii represents both a stiff test against a program from a higher division to open the season and a way to honor the efforts of a class integral in the program's successful transition to Division I.

“;When we started putting this together we were thinking about something we could do for this senior class,”; UCA coach Clint Conque said.

The Bears graduated from Division II and into the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) in 2006 and are in the final year of the NCAA-mandated four-year transition period schools must endure when changing divisions. They haven't been eligible for postseason play or the Southland Conference championship in that period even as they've climbed the national rankings.

Conque led Central Arkansas to an 8-3 mark in the program's first Division I season and a 6-5 mark in 2007, when the Bears finished second in the Southland.

Central Arkansas went 10-2 last season, going 6-1 in the SLC (although the title was awarded to Texas State) and finishing the year ranked 12th in the FCS coaches poll. They begin the new season in the same spot in the poll.

“;It certainly indicates a positive perception of our football program, past and present, since our move to FCS Division I,”; Conque said when the rankings were released.

“;It is important to our players that our program be in the conversation as a program competing on the national level. I am cautious and do remind our players that the game is played on the field and not in the media.”;

The ranking comes even as the Bears work to replace the leaders of an offense that averaged 37.5 points per game last season in quarterback Nathan Brown (3,206 yards, 31 touchdowns), receiver Eric Ware (758 yards, five TDs) and tight end Marquez Branson (737 yards, 11 TDs).

Senior Robbie Park is poised to step in for Brown at quarterback. Park, who joined the program in 2006 after serving a two-year mission in Argentina, attempted 24 passes in eight games last season, and established himself as the starter during spring practice.

Park was able to hold off Arkansas transfer Nathan Dick in fall camp. Dick, a sophomore, started the last two games of last season for the Razorbacks, completing 58 percent of his attempts for 454 yards and four touchdowns. Dick was hampered by a triceps injury in fall camp.

The Bears return running back Brent Grimes, who led the Bears in both rushing and scoring last season with 879 yards and 21 total touchdowns, setting the school's single-season points record.

Like Grimes, 6-foot-7, 324-pound offensive tackle Lane Friewald is one of the seniors who have been around throughout the transition to Division I and has been an All-SLC selection the last two years.

Along with having Ware and Branson move on, the Bears' receiver corps also lost Willie Landers to a knee injury on the first day of practice.

Although the Bears have crafted a reputation for explosive offense, defense enters this season at the forefront.

Defensive end Larry Hart leads a defense that features eight senior starters. Hart earned first-team All-America honors in his first season in the program. He made a smooth transition from junior college in rampaging through backfields to record 21 tackles for loss, including 12 sacks, out of his 43 total tackles.

The program's growth includes upgrading the schedule. The Bears have played Louisiana Tech and Tulsa the last two years and have games with Oklahoma State and Mississippi scheduled in coming years.

As for the trip to Hawaii, Conque plans to let the Bears enjoy some of the scenery during their stay, but only after testing their progress against the Warriors.

“;I think it's a benchmark game for our program,”; Conque said.