Loss of two re­ceivers opens op­por­tu­ni­ties

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BROOKS KUBENA

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.”

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