Recruiting Arkansas prep players has always been about quality more than quantity for University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque. The veteran UCA head coach has also shown a knack for mining some diamonds in the rough in the Natural State.Three of the Bears’ biggest defensive playmakers in 2012 had little or no recruiting attention from schools other than in the Division II ranks.All-American senior linebacker Seth Allison walked on the squad five years ago. Allison, who prepped at Stuttgart, turned down Division II offers. He wanted to play at a higher level. He came highly recommended from Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey. At the time of Allison’s recruitment, Mulkey coached his older sister Rachel, who starred at Nettleton High School.
Mulkey knew Conque from when they both coached at Louisiana Tech and assured Conque if he offered Allison would be worth it. Conque told Mulkey he was aware of Allison. Conque decided to invite the quarterback/defensive back to walk on. Allison may have been the Bears’ greatest walk-on success story next to Pine Bluff native Monte Coleman, who played 17 years with the Washington Redskins.
Allison finished his career with 252 total tackles, 22 tackles for loss and eight interceptions. The two-time Southland All-Conference selection and All-Academic Team pick racked up 84 total tackles, including five for loss, and a team-high three forced fumbles in 2012.
Allison is a four-year letterman, and for three seasons was one of the reasons the Bears were one of the more feared defenses in the Southland. The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder that few schools would take a chance on became one of the better defensive players in school history.
Junior Jestin Love, of West Memphis, has a similar story. He was one of the top players in 6A his senior season, but couldn’t land a major offer. Conque snapped him up and has watched him contribute for three seasons.
Like Allison, Love redshirted, and then played 10 games and started four at safety as a RS freshman. He tied a school record with two interception returns for touchdowns in a season and his 166 interception return yards is a school record in his debut season.
Love started 10 games as a sophomore and was 2nd team All-SLC. This year he earned first-team honors and was No. 2 in tackles (91) and accumulated three tackles for loss.
Bryant native Dillon Winfrey, a freshman, would have walked over glass to play at Arkansas State. Former coach Hugh Freeze showed some interest. His replacement, Gus Malzahn, showed none, crushing the diminutive playmaker with blazing speed.
Conque welcomed him, and Winfrey became a starter at cornerback, racking up 40 total tackles and snagging two interceptions, which was tied with Allison and three others for tops.
Those are three players on a lengthy list of lightly regarded Arkansans who have exceeded expectations while helping UCA make a successful transition from Division II to I-AA.
Conque hopes he’s found a few more in-state overachievers in the 2013 class.
Even with standout Pulaski Academy receiver L.J. Wallace electing to play baseball only for the Bears and Osceola athlete Korliss Marshall, flipping to the University of Arkansas, UCA has landed a small, but solid, in-state group.
Rugged running back Jeff Anderson doesn’t have to leave home to embark on his college career. The Conway native burst on the scene this year by running for more than 1,000 yards on his way to all-state honors. Anderson flew under the radar of college coaches after a quiet start to the varsity career, but Conque saw enough of him in 2012 to see he can potentially flatten SLC foes in the future.
Yellville-Summit offensive lineman Stockton Mallett, the younger cousin of former Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, has the strength and girth to be a major Division I signee. The 6-foot-3, 320-pounder, who is ranked as the No. 19 prospect in Arkansas by rivals.com, had a good showing at the Arkansas camp. However, after failing to receive an offer, he committed early to UCA. Speculation is if he were 6-foot-5 he would have SEC offers. Even so, I think he was SEC worthy and the Bears are getting a huge (pun intended) bargain.
Another offensive lineman, Morrilton’s Gilberto Garcia (6-foot-3, 273), quietly became one of the state’s top tackles. He firmly committed to UCA over the summer, but took a visit to New Mexico State recently. He picked up an offer, but stayed committed to the Bears. Garcia and Mallett could anchor the line for multiple years for UCA. Garcia isn’t as heavy as most BCS programs would like, but look for him to add 30 pounds to his frame before he leaves Conway.
The news of Wallace and Marshall’s decisions has UCA coaches scrambling to fill the spots with signing day approaching Wednesday. They are now reportedly courting slight-of-build McClellan star Akee Johnson. Johnson (5-10, 160) only played five games this season due to injury, but earned a Landers Award finalist bid. Over two seasons at McClellan, Johnson played quarterback, running back, receiver and returned punts and kicks. Most D-I schools won’t take a chance on him because of his small frame, but like Winfrey he is intriguing because he is extraordinarily fast with shifty moves. His big-play potential makes it worth the risk for the UCA staff. Johnson is currently committed to Henderson State. A signature from him is a big steal for the Reddies. If they lose Johnson, it will be the fourth in-state player that has flipped. If UCA doesn’t offer look for Johnson to stay committed to HSU.
Only time will tell how these value picks pan out. Based on past history it’s a good bet they will be key cogs in keeping the Bears in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs where they have been the past two seasons.