Football team seeks 4 straight conference titles

UNA head football coach Bobby Wallace looks on during a practice last season at the UNA practice field. With 17 starters and 43 lettermen returning, the Lions hope to win its fourth consecutive conference championship in 2016.

The Gulf South Conference seems to get tougher with each season, and the UNA football team must do the same in 2016.

The Lions look to win their fourth straight conference championship in 2016. No other GSC team has accomplished this feat. West Georgia, who shared the GSC title with UNA last season, is the preseason favorite to win the conference this year.

The GSC coaches picked UNA to finish second, which is nothing unusual to the Lions in recent years, said UNA head coach Bobby Wallace.

“West Georgia deserved to be picked first,” Wallace said. “We haven’t been picked first in the last three years and won in each of those years, at least a share…If you look at all those polls, you’ll realize not to put a lot of meaning into it.”

Wallace said losing marquee players such as quarterback Luke Wingo, running back Lamonte Thompson, safety Floyd Jones, and others raises some questions. But Wallace said he thinks there should be nothing to worry about.

“Those are names that everybody knows, which is what you like,” Wallace said. “But at the same time, when you have 17 starters back, 43 returning lettermen and eight retuning all-conference players, we have a chance to have a good team.”

Arguably the biggest storyline heading into 2016 is senior quarterback Jacob Tucker stepping in to take the starting job after spending three years as a promising backup.

“Jacob is going to be our quarterback,” Wallace said. “There aren’t enough words I can say to show how much he means to this program. He’s a great leader and has all of the qualities that we would look for in a quarterback.”

Without Thompson, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, the Lions will look to a “running back-by-committee” style run game, said offensive coordinator Steadman Campbell. Damon Cox and Terence Humphreys appear to be early favorites for carries.

Other key offensive starters returning to the team are junior wide receivers Dre Hall and Julius Jones, along with senior tackle Stephen Evans, senior center Cody Vaughn and senior guard Jordan Brooks on the offensive line.

“I feel like this offensive line is going to bring everything to the table to protect Tucker and our running backs,” Evans said. “We have brought in some guys who have experience and are tough.”

Defensively, the Lions have eight returning starters including a strong senior cornerback duo in Philbert Martial and Levi Fell, both of which finished 2015 on the All-GSC team.

“We have a lot of veterans and some players coming in that should help us a lot,” Martial said. “I think Coach Wallace was right when he said this should be one of this best defenses we’ve had in awhile.”

Up front, UNA returns seniors E.J. Parnell and Tyler Smith,  junior Freddie Reed and sophomore Eddquerion Harris. Senior Barron Miller will make the move from defensive end to linebacker this season.

Along with Miller, senior Eddrick Harris returns at middle linebacker. Arguably one of the biggest transfer signings this offseason is former East Carolina player Darius Wright. Wallace said he expects the 6-foot, 225-pound senior to step in the weak side linebacker role right away.

The Lions return all three key members of its special teams unit in 2016, including senior punter Jeb Millender, junior kicker Kevin Henke and junior long snapper Wil Lovelace.

UNA’s first half of the season might be the toughest they’ve had in recent memory, as all five opponents won at least seven games last season. Seven of the Lions’ 10 opponents had winning records in 2015.

The Lions open up on the road against FCS runner-up Jacksonville State Sept. 1. at Burgess-Snow Field.