By Dave Wagner
Clint Conque feels good about his Central Arkansas football team as it gets ready for the 2004 campaign, but says he’s not much different than most football coaches.
“Every coach in America is optimistic at this point in the season,” said Conque, whose Bears face Eastern New Mexico University in Saturday’s 6 p.m. lidlifter for both teams at Blackwater Draw.
The reason for optimism, above all else, is that the Bears enter the season far healthier than a year ago, when they eventually stumbled to a 5-6 record.
They return 14 starters, while senior quarterback Zak Clark returns after missing all of last season with a broken knuckle on his right index finger. Clark, who threw for 3,157 yards in 2002, started 12 games at the University of Arkansas before transferring to Central Arkansas, Conque said.
ENMU coach Bud Elliott, heading into his 37th and final season as a college head coach, said he expects a hard-fought clash.
“They’re kind of a West Coast (style of) offense,” said Elliott, seeking his 200th win as a college coach (199-174-9). “They really have a good concept on offense.
“I expect them to be a really formidable opponent. But I think they’re going to find us to be pretty formidable, too.”
The teams have never met. The Conway-based Bears have had a solid tradition which was revived under Conque, a former offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech.
Prior to last season, Central Arkansas was 17-6 over the previous two years and ranked as high as fifth in NCAA Division II in 2002.
The Bears were listed 23rd in Football Gazette’s Division II Top 40 this year — but they were picked fifth in the Gulf South Conference’s preseason poll.
“It’s a very tough league, no question about it,” Conque said. “We went to the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, and last year the expectations were off the chart. Winning five games, we didn’t handle that pressure very well.”
He said ENMU should be a good test for his squad, adding that the fact Elliott is shooting for his 200th win provides even more impetus for the Hounds.
“They are a very sound, physical team that plays with great effort,” Conque said of the Hounds. “Playing on the road against an extremely talented football team, we know we’re possibly walking into a hornet’s nest.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that coach Elliott has announced his retirement, and we know he’s one win short of 200. Those are intangibles.”
Elliott said the Hounds’ option attack will have to keep the ball away from Clark as much as possible.
“If we can’t control their quarterback some, we’ll be in trouble,” Elliott said. “We’ve got some awful good people who can (pressure) off the edge, and some pretty good blitzers inside.”
Central Arkansas at ENMU
6 p.m. Saturday
At Blackwater Draw
Records: Season opener for both teams.
Coaches: UCA, Clint Conque, 5th year; ENMU, Bud Elliott, 11th year.
Last meeting: The teams have never played.
UCA players to watch: Zak Clark, Sr. QB, 6-3, 206; Cory Cangelosi, 6-1, 194; Anthony Lampkin, Jr. WR, 5-7, 160; Michael Norvell, Jr. WR, 6-0, 174; LeRoy Hamilton, Fr. FS, 5-10, 180; Gary Davis, Jr. DE, 6-1, 268; Chad Taylor, Jr. DE, 6-3, 248.
Of note: No doubt UCA’s most famous alum, at least in sports, is longtime NBA star Scottie Pippen. He was drafted fifth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1987, then traded that day to the Chicago Bulls where he was a part of six NBA championship teams in an eight-year span. … The Bears have played and defeated Lone Star Conference members Abilene Christian and Southeastern Oklahoma during Conque’s term as coach. … Cangelosi was an All-Gulf South Conference selection last season and a preseason pick this year, while Lambkin earned preseason All-American honors as an all-purpose player. … Norvell was named the GSC freshman of the year in 2001 before sitting out the following season with an injury.
Quotable: “He throws as good as any quarterback in the Lone Star. We need to keep heat on him from a lot of places.” — ENMU coach Bud Elliott, talking about defending against Bears quarterback Zac Clark.