With almost 40 returning lettermen, including a number of key starters back on offense, University of North Alabama football coach Terry Bowden said he likes his team’s chances to be conference, regional and national contenders in 2011.
“I’m really excited about this football team,” Bowden said. “This is one of the largest groups of returning players we have had, especially on offense. We did lose a lot of starters on defense but we have a lot of players back who played a lot of football last year.”
“I also like the overall carry-over we have in terms of leadership that our veteran players are providing.”
UNA’s players report Tuesday and will go through a conditioning test Wednesday before their first practice on Thursday at 8:30 a.m.
Bowden has led UNA to a combined 20-6 record over the last two seasons that includes the 2009 Gulf South Conference championship and back-to-back NCAA playoff appearances. In fact, UNA carries a streak of six straight playoff appearances into the 2011 season.
After a 9-4 finish a year ago, UNA returns 38 total letterman for 2011, including starting quarterback Lee Chapple, the team’s top three rushers and three all-conference offensive linemen.
“On offense we have experience at quarterback, running back and on the line,” Bowden said. “The biggest difference for us this year will be that we do not have to break in a new quarterback and that should give us much better carry-over in both experience and leadership. “
Chapple threw for 3,051 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, but with a veteran group of running backs also in camp, Bowden said he would like to see the offense be more balanced.
“With the returnees we have, we know the potential is there for a good ground game,” Bowden said. “I would like to see a great back emerge from the group and take the lead. “
UNA returns its top three rushers from a year ago in Wes Holland, Chris Coffey and Antwan Ivey. Holland, a senior from Pelham, Ala., rushed for 716 yards and seven touchdowns and had two 100-yard rushing games. Coffey, a sophomore from Decatur, Ala., picked up 467 yards and scored nine times, including a three-TD performance in UNA’s blowout playoff win on the road at Valdosta State. Ivey, a senior from Newberry, Fla., gained 414 yards and scored four times. The Lions have also added senior Demetrius Goode of LaGrange, Ga., who transferred from the University of Alabama.
Clearing the way for that stable of backs is a veteran line that Bowden says has the chance to be “special” if it can avoid injuries. UNA’s offensive line returns a consensus All-American and two other All-Gulf South Conference performers, in addition to a returning starter from 2009. Senior tackle Kyle Thornton of Dallas, Texas earned All-GSC and All-American honors last season, while senior center Jamie Dixon of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and senior tackle Daron Rose of Tampa, Fla., were also All-GSC picks. Will Furlong of DeLand, Fla., started for the Lions in 2009 but missed the entire 2010 season due to injury. Also back is transfer Brandon Davis of Miami, Fla., who was slated to start a year ago but also missed the season due to injury. Another Florida State transfer, Antwan Greenlee, will also be in the mix, along with returning lettermen Thomas Glenn and David Lundberg. On the down side, returning starter Blake Ray of Wetumpka, Ala., has already been lost for the season due to an injury. On North Alabama’s first day of fall practice in 2010 the Lions lost three starters on the offensive line, and Bowden said UNA can’t afford a repeat of that this season. “Blake is an important part of this line and our offense and losing him hurts,” Bowden said. “That just means we will have to have even better attitude and effort from the rest of the line. We have the talent but will have to develop some depth.”
The main area of concern for Bowden on offense is at receiver, where the Lions have suffered heavy losses from last season. Junior Chris Simpson of Florence is the top returnee with 22 catches for 211 yards a year ago, but he ranked sixth on the team in catches last season. “If we can get a couple of receivers to step up and give us outstanding performances, we have the chance to be really good on offense,” Bowden said.
Defensively, UNA does return 18 lettermen but just two starters.
“The way recruiting fell this year, we had to make some additions on defense,” Bowden said. “We only have two full-time starters back but we have quite a few returning defensive lettermen who played a lot of football last year.”
Bowden said the transfers should make the biggest impact in the secondary, but will also fill gaps at linebacker and on the defensive line. “We have a chance to be strong in the secondary and at linebacker,” Bowden said. “Our safeties are big enough to also play outside linebacker so we may have to look at those two positions as the same. We should also have a very fast defense and that is important with as much as people throw the football in this league, to be able to defend well in space with anybody.”
UNA returns starting defensive backs Darnell Jackson of Houston, Texas, and Bryan Thomas of Zephyrhills, Fla., , in addition to lettermen Terrell Bailey, Jonathan Byrd, Travis Robinson, John Ware and Rod Woodson. Add to that group, transfers Janoris Jenkins from the University of Florida, DeAndre Morgan from North Carolina State University, Nick Williams from the University of Georgia and Caleb Massey from Troy University and you have a deep unit with experience, speed and skill. Jenkins and Morgan should battle with the returnees for the starting cornerback slots, while Williams and Massey will play at safety. Thomas, Woodson and Jenkins have all earned BCS National Championship rings prior to their arrival at UNA.
At linebacker UNA has eight returning lettermen, led by senior Lucas Darr of Clearwater, Fla. Darr is UNA’s leading returning tackler from a year ago with 45 total stops. Bowden feels the addition of University of Georgia transfer Marcus Dowtin will help solidify the unit.
UNA suffered its heaviest losses on the defensive line but Bowden said that could be deceiving. “We did lose some great players up front but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be pretty solid up there,” Bowden said. The Lions lost All-American Courtney Harris and All-GSC pick Steven Wesley, among others, from the line. But UNA does return veterans in Jarrod Jefferson, Ernest Duren and Jamar Jackson.
While Bowden is excited about the potential on offense and defense, he said he is even more encouraged by the potential improvements on special teams.
“We struggled last year on special teams due to inexperience,” said Bowden. “When you lose two games by one point and another by five, special teams can make the difference in those games and we have a chance to really improve this year.
Starting place kicker Josh Montgomery of Russellville, Ala, earned All-Gulf South Conference and all-region honors last season and is back in 2011. Michael Schuster of Decatur, Ala., initially transferred to UNA from Auburn two years ago. He rejoined the Lions in the spring and was voted MVP of the Purple-White Game after an outstanding punting exhibition Former Florida State kicker and Lambuth transfer Nathan OJibway can kickoff, punt or handle place-kicking duties, and starting long snapper Josh Roberts of Wetumpka, Ala., also returns. Bowden added, “These guys form an outstanding group that give us not only experience and ability but also depth,”
Bowden said one of the most unusual aspects of the 2011 season will be the Lions’ schedule. With the departure of the six Arkansas members of the Gulf South Conference, the league has just five remaining football playing schools, and those four conference games will be UNA’s final four games of the season. “I don’t really know how to feel about that,” Bowden said. “It is just very unusual that we will play almost two thirds of our season before anything at all has begun as far as the conference is concerned.”
Bowden said it will be nice to open the season with two home games against Central Oklahoma (Sept. 1) and Glenville State (Sept. 10) before travelling to Arlington, Texas to take on perennial Division II power Abilene Christian Sept. 17) at Cowboys Stadium. “It’s always nice to open at home and get comfortable with what you are doing on your own field, but we will open up against two good opponents. And with just a 10-game schedule this year, every game will be extremely important as far as the regional and national pictures are concerned.”
The mid-season portion of UNA’s schedule is a three-game slate of non-conference games against former GSC members Harding, Southern Arkansas and Arkansas Tech. Harding will be UNA’s Homecoming opponent on Sept. 24, and the Lions will travel to Southern Arkansas (Oct. 1) and Arkansas Tech (Oct. 8 ). UNA will then close the year with four straight league games against Delta State, West Alabama, West Georgia and Valdosta State. The October 13 game against Delta State at home, and the October 27 game at West Alabama will be part of the GSC-TV Live package and will be played on Thursday nights. UNA will also play West Georgia at home and will close the regular season on the road at Valdosta State.