Veteran Lions team gets early start to spring practice

Ice may be on the ground but so are the cleats of UNA football players as the Lions gear up for spring practice Feb. 23.

UNA gets an early start to spring practice in order to get it done before spring break and to give players more time to heal in case they get injured during practice, said head coach Bobby Wallace. The Purple-White game is scheduled for March 14.

“The weather is usually better in my experience, because it doesn’t rain as much this time of the year as it does April,” Wallace said. “If we waited longer we’d run into spring break and the NCAA won’t allow us to practice a week before exams.”

The Lions have one of the largest groups of returning players in school history and the largest in Wallace’s second stint at UNA.

The Lions have 59 lettermen and 15 starters returning from last year’s 9-2 season that included a share of the Gulf South Conference Championship.

“We’re going to be careful with what we do since we have so many older guys coming back,” Wallace said. “Spring practice is going to be about seeing what the young guys can do. There’s no sense in letting the older guys take so many of the hits.”

The Lions return eight starters on an offense that finished second in the GSC in scoring (35.9 ppg). Senior quarterback Luke Wingo made second-team All-GSC in 2014 and leads the offense once again.

Wingo broke the school record for passing yards in the D-II first round playoff loss to Valdosta State University when he threw for 511 yards. Wingo also led the GSC with a 162 yard passing efficiency.

“My main focus this spring is the fundamentals of being a good quarterback,” Wingo said. “I want to focus on the small things that go overlooked in the fall.”

Wingo battled a shoulder injury for most of the 2014 season but will be competing in spring practice. After the season offensive coordinator Cody Gross told Wingo not to throw a football until February.

“My shoulder is coming back well,” Wingo said. “The pain is pretty much gone, so now it’s just a matter of getting its strength back.”

Junior quarterback Jacob Tucker missed the last seven games of the season due to a foot injury but is cleared to practice as well, Gross said.

“Tucker’s been killing it in the weight room so he’s good to go,” Gross said. “I don’t know how much contact he’ll get because I don’t know if there’s a need.”

The Lions also return its top two rushers in senior and 2014 first-team All-GSC selection Lamonte Thompson and senior Diamond Simmons.

“One of the biggest things about spring is honing your individual skills,” Gross said. “We have a lot of experience but fundamentally we can get better at some things.”

With the loss of two starters on the offensive line, Justin Booth and Keith Jones, the Lions must develop some depth up front, Gross said.

“We have to get more physical on the offensive line,” he said. “We need to find some new guys that can step in and compete.”

On the other side of the ball, the Lions return six starters on defense. UNA ranked No. 2 in the GSC in scoring defense in 2014 with 18.2 ppg.

The Lions return all four starting defensive backs but will break in several new guys on the front seven.

“We had some losses at defensive end and that’s where the transfers will come in and help out,” Wallace said. “At linebacker we’ll have to find the right mix. Defensive back will be interesting because we have six outstanding guys back there.”

Junior cornerback Philbert Martial was named first-team All-GSC in 2014 and junior cornerback Levi Fell was named second-team All-GSC last year.

Notable players unavailable for spring practice due to injuries are sophomore offensive lineman Jess Cooper (knee), senior wide receiver Lee Mayhall (leg) and junior defensive lineman DeAndre Harrison (shoulder), Wallace said.

Wide receivers Delvon Carpenter and Korey Jones are no longer on the team as well as running back Tahj Kimble, Wallace said..

Carpenter was the team’s leading receiver in 2014 and was named first-team All-GSC after having 786 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

Kimble rushed for 287 yards in his lone season with the Lions. Jones had 584 career receiving yards.