Loss of two receivers opens opportunities
CONWAY — The freshman receiver cut to the sideline, broke free from his defender and sped toward the pines that lined the end zone of the the University of Central Arkansas practice field.
Wednesday was the first day of full pads, and Joe Hampton lunged under the new weight while his defender lagged. He caught the spiraling football in stride to score the first deep touchdown of the day.
The 6-2, 186-pound wideout from Little Rock Christian had shown the same speed during spring practice, catching deep touchdowns in three out of four scrimmages to close his redshirt season at UCA.
Hampton’s speed spread a smile across the face of UCA Coach Steve Campbell, who said one of the team’s biggest questions is how it
will replace two graduated receivers who represented more than half of the team’s receiving production.
“He’s got big-play ability,” Campbell said.
Hampton will debut this season as part of a receiving group whose highest statistical leader, senior Roman Gordon, produced significantly less yardage in 2016 than the two leaders — Desmond Smith (893) and Jatavious Wilson (891). Gordon’s 312 yards were third on the team.
Smith — who left UCA as the program’s career leader in receiving yards and receptions — caught 70 passes, and Wilson had 63. The next closest player was Brandon Cox, a senior this season, who caught 20 passes for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“Due to the fact that Desmond and Jatavious did draw so much attention, it was hard to move them out when [the new receivers] came in,” Campbell said. “These guys are good players. They’ve just been a lot of the complementary pieces. Now it’s their turn to step up.”
Several returning receivers did make an impact in spots last season. Gordon caught an 83-yard touchdown pass in UCA’s 35-0 victory over McNeese State; Cox caught the game-winning touchdown pass in UCA’s 28-23 victory over Arkansas State University; and junior Jakari Dillard recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in UCA’s 31-24 victory over Illinois State in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
Dillard said Wednesday that he feels “comfortable” with returning junior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand, who passed for 3,051 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season.
During practice, Hildebrand stepped up in the pocket to avoid defenders and threw deep to Dillard, who had broken free on a post route. Dillard dropped the ball, which he called a “lack of focus.”
“We do throw a lot of those,” Hampton said. “Coach [Campbell] says if we complete 30 percent of those, we’ll win games.”
Campbell said Gordon and Dillard are expected to fill the outside “X” receiving position that Smith played, while Cox and junior Lester Wells will fill the inside “H” receiving position Wilson played.
Wells impressed Campbell on Wednesday by elevating and catching a pass among a large group of linebackers on the first day of full contact. The 6-5, 185-pound true freshman Lujuan Washington also stood out to Campbell. Washington had 912 yards and 13 touchdowns at Atascocita (Texas) High School last year, but Campbell said if he “had to bet,” Washington will redshirt this season.
“It’s too early to tell,” Campbell said. “He’ll have to step up in front of the other guys. It’ll be hard for a freshman, but I’m not saying he can’t. I’m excited about his ability.”
Senior tight end Chandler Dexter, 6-6, 263 pounds, will catch more passes this season, Campbell said, because of the graduation of Cody Dauksch (7 catches, 91 yards and 2 touchdowns). Dexter, who was used mostly in a blocking role last season, is being worked into UCA’s “superback” position, which will at times motion into the backfield for option plays and pass routes.
“He’s gotten a lot better with his familiarity with the offense,” Campbell said. “He’s learning what to do and feeling a lot more comfortable, a lot faster.”