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SWAC hunt goal for Golden Lions

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Photographs by Staton Breidenthal

University of Arkansas Pine Bluff head football coach Monte Coleman.

Monte Coleman walked into the Birmingham, Ala., Marriott on Friday morning -- a golden handkerchief in the front pocket of the head coach's dark gray suit -- while the Southwestern Athletic Conference media day buzzed about a final conference championship game his UAPB Golden Lions were predicted to be nowhere near.

The SWAC announced June 13 that the conference will drop its championship game format after this season in favor of the 2-year-old Celebration Bowl, which has the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and SWAC champions play each other for the de facto black college national championship.

SWAC preseason predictions

Eastern Division

Alcorn State — 80 points

Coached by the late Steve McNair’s older brother, Fred, Alcorn State has played in the SWAC championship in each of the past two seasons, winning in 2015. The Braves have depth at quarterback and will have its pick between senior Lenorris Footman (1,134 yards, 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions) and sophomore Noah Johnson (1,116 yards, 11 touchdowns, 5 interceptions).

Alabama State — 66 points

Fourth-year Coach Brian Jenkins said at media days that one of the reasons he was hired away from Bethune-Cookman was to clean up a football program that was hit with NCAA sanctions in 2013 for violations that included academic fraud and extra benefits. “We’ve cleaned them up,” Jenkins said. “And that’s why I’m excited about this season. We’re able to operate without that cloud over our head.”

Jackson State — 59 points

Coach Tony Hughes compared his program to TCU, who the Tigers will open the season against Sept. 2. “We’re tough, hard-working, a chip on your shoulder, the little guy that nobody respects, but a school that has a tradition in winning football,” Hughes said. Jackson State defensive lineman Keontre Anderson was named SWAC preseason defensive player of the year.

Alabama A&M — 45 points

The SWAC’s fourth-leading rusher in 2016, Jordan Bentley, said at media days he hopes he can help his team close out games. Bentley rushed for 851 yards and nine touchdowns last season as A&M finished 4-7.

Mississippi Valley State — 20 points

The Delta Devils open the season at the Fargo Dome against FCS power North Dakota State on Sept. 2. They have not won more than two games in a season since 2012, when they went 5-6.

Western Division

Grambling State — 85

The defending SWAC champions will open at home Sept. 9 against Northwestern State University in newly renovated Robinson Stadium. The $2 million project upgraded the field turf and digital scoreboard. Grambling State Coach Broderick Fobbs said with the renovations, returning coaches and returning players, “When you add all that into a gumbo pot, you’ve got something good.”

Southern — 68

The Jaguars lost top running back Lenard Tillery, who rushed for 1,665 yards and 13 touchdowns, to graduation. The closest returning rusher is Herbert Edwards, who rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown. Coach Dawson Odums said the spring went well with his running back group. “We have guys back there that can carry the mail.”

Prairie View A&M — 59

The Panthers have their home opener this season against Sam Houston State on Sept. 7 on ESPNU. The BearKats made it to the FCS quarterfinals last season. This will be the second season in the $61 million Panther Stadium at Blackshear Field, which holds about 15,000 people.

Texas Southern — 37

TSU’s main focus will be at quarterback, where senior Jay Christophe returns from a noncontact knee injury that kept him out of last season. “Jay’s in great shape, great condition,” Coach Mike Haywood said. “His knee injury has fully recovered, and we’ve signed three quarterbacks this offseason to be sure we have backups in case he gets injured again.”

Arkansas-Pine Bluff — 21

The Golden Lions have finished last in the Western Division in each of the past three seasons, but Coach Monte Coleman is confident that senior quarterback Brandon Duncan will help change the direction. “We’ve been a very young team in the last few years,” Coleman said. “We do have a veteran quarterback coming back. A lot of the guys we’ve recruited are transfers from junior colleges. We’ve got a good mixture and that gives me nothing but optimism.”

SWAC Preseason All-SWAC Football Team

Preseason Offensive Player of the Year

Devante Kincade (QB) — Grambling State

Preseason Defensive Player of the Year

Keontre Anderson (DL) — Jackson State

First Team Offense

Quarterback: Devante Kincade, Grambling State

Running back: Martez Carter, Grambling State; Jordan Bentley, Alabama A&M

Offensive line: Trent Scott, Grambling State; Donovan Wheaton, Prairie View A&M; Timothy Gardner, Alcorn State; William Waddell, Grambling State; Sam Baptiste, Alabama State

Wide receiver: KhaDarel Hodge, Prairie View A&M; Devohn Lindsey, Grambling State

Tight end: Dillon Beard, Southern

First Team Defense

Defensive line: Keontre Anderson, Jackson State; Aaron Tiller, Southern; Michael Brooks, Alcorn State; DeVohn Reed, Prairie View A&M

Linebacker: Kenneth Davis, Alabama A&M; Sean Jones, Texas Southern; De’Arius Christmas, Grambling State

Defensive back: Danny Johnson, Southern; Everett Nicholas, Mississippi Valley State; Tere Calloway, Alabama A&M; Derrick Dixon, Grambling State

First Team Special Teams

Kicker: Nick Carden, Alabama A&M

Punter: Owen Hoolihan, Prairie View A&M

Return specialist: Martez Carter, Grambling State

Second Team Offense

Quarterback: Austin Howard, Southern

Running back: Sta’Fon McCray, Prairie View A&M; De’Lance Turner, Alcorn State

Offensive line: Skylar Prol, Southern; Deonte Brooks, Alcorn State; Vincent Hunter, Jackson State; Austin Simmons, Alabama A&M; Alvin Solomon, Mississippi Valley State

Wide receiver: Norlando Veals, Alcorn State; Darius Floyd, Prairie View A&M

Tight end: Jordan Jones, Grambling State

Second Team Defense

Defensive line: Christopher Johnson, Grambling State; James Harper, Prairie View A&M; Brandon Varner, Grambling State; Ramonte Bell, Alcorn State

Linebacker: Kentavious Preston, Southern; Malcolm Williams, Grambling State; Shawn Bishop, Jackson State

Defensive back: Ja’Terious Pouncey, Grambling State; O.J. O’Neal, Alcorn State; Jamar Mitchell, Southern; Percy Cargo, Grambling State

Second Team Special Teams

Kicker: Trevor Vincent, Alabama State

Punter: Jamie Gillan, Arkansas-Pine Bluff

Return specialist: Joshua Simmons, Prairie View A&M

The Celebration Bowl will kick off the 2017 bowl season Dec. 16 on ABC, and the SWAC's six-year contract to play in the nationally televised game in the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta outweighed the self-financed SWAC championship at NRG Stadium in Houston, which dropped from a crowd of 40,352 in 2015 to 24,917 in 2016.

"Whenever you get a million dollars and you're not spending a million dollars on your own championship game, it helps tremendously," SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said at media day.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has finished last in the Western Division in each of the past three seasons, and the Golden Lions were voted to finish in the same sport for a fourth consecutive season.

"I don't lose any sleep over the predictions," said Coleman, 59. "We haven't played a football game yet. In 2012, we were picked fourth and we won the championship. In 2013, we were picked first, and we finished last. It's discouraging to be picked last, but I don't put a whole lot of weight in it."

The prediction was "only motivation" for junior linebacker Je'Kevin Carter, who arrived in Birmingham after spending the summer doing agility training in Baton Rouge with high school teammate and best friend Isaiah Buggs, who committed to Alabama in December from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

"Seeing him makes me want to be more active in football," said Carter, who was second for UAPB with 8½ tackles for loss last season. "Buggs was a Top 15 player [No. 1 junior college recruit, according to Rivals], and that motivates me to work and bring that to Pine Bluff."

Carter is part of a defense that lost its top three tacklers from 2016, including second-team All-SWAC linebacker Willie Duncan. The only UAPB player to make the 2017 preseason All-SWAC team was junior punter Jamie Gillan, who was named to the second team and averaged 42.5 yards a punt last season -- ranking second in the conference.

"We lost a big person [in Duncan]," Carter said. "Hopefully I can fill his shoes."

UAPB will begin practice on Aug. 2, and its first game will be against NCAA Division II opponent Morehouse College on Sept. 2. Coleman called the matchup "one of the hardest games we'll have all year" because of Morehouse's perspective of having nothing to lose. UAPB last beat Morehouse 29-27 in overtime in 2015.

Beyond Morehouse, Akron and UAPB's last nonconference opponent, Arkansas State, lies SWAC opponents, against which the Golden Lions have gone 9-35 (.205) in the four seasons since their last conference title.

"The last couple of years, we've struggled," Coleman said. "And the thing we want to do is make some strides forward that show that the program is getting better."

Coleman pointed to reigning SWAC champion and West Division favorite Grambling State, and how the Louisiana program went a combined 2-21 in 2012 and 2013 before playing in back-to-back SWAC championships in 2015 and 2016.

"I hope we get back to the excellence of winning," Coleman said.

UAPB will have to surpass Grambling State and returning quarterback and SWAC preseason offensive player of the year Devante Kincade, who led the conference with 3,022 passing yards and 31 touchdowns.

Coleman said junior quarterback Brandon Duncan -- who passed for 2,229 yards, 10 touchdowns and 6 interceptions -- is pegged as the starter going into camp, and senior tight end Jaelen Collins has been training in Pine Bluff during the summer.

"Just having a relationship with Brandon, hanging out, just having a bond, makes it easier," said Collins, who caught 11 passes for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2016. "We're all on the same page. We're setting the standard for the new guys coming in."

Sports on 07/15/2017

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