UAM picked eighth in GAC preseason poll

At this time of year, football coaches are fond of telling their teams two things: “Everybody’s 0-0” and “Preseason polls aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.”
Oh, and “The games are played on the field, not on paper.”
The University of Arkansas at Monticello’s Hud Jackson has likely used each of those coach-speak phrases in his seven-year tenure at UAM. They’ll come in especially handy after the Boll Weevils were selected eighth in the Great American Conference coaches’ preseason poll, released by the league office Tuesday afternoon.
Following a 9-3 season that resulted in an appearance in the Agent Barry Live United Bowl, Southern Arkansas University will enter 2017 as the GAC’s preseason favorite, followed by last season’s champion, Harding University. Each school received five first-place votes and Henderson State University, which came in third in the poll, got the other two.
Led by the only 2016 unanimous All-GAC selection, senior wide receiver Jalen Tolliver, UAM finished 4-7 a year ago—good enough for eighth place in the final GAC standings.  The Weevils beat Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma Baptist University, Ouachita Baptist University and East Central University last fall and had two other games decided by seven points or less.
Aside from the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Tolliver, who led the league in receiving touchdowns (14), receiving yards (1,090), receptions (69), receptions per game (6.3) and receiving yards per game (99.1) a year ago, UAM has plenty of other weapons returning. Junior quarterback Cole Sears (6-3, 220) and Monticello’s own Imani Riley (5-9, 200), a junior running back, are both back to more than complement Tolliver.
Sears threw for 2,972 yards and had 24 passing touchdowns while Riley rushed for 611 yards and five rushing touchdowns. Beyond those three, Jackson’s cupboard is anything but bare with the likes of senior wide receiver Trevon Smith (6-2, 195), who had almost 500 yards receiving in the latter part of the season, and sophomore running back Deountario Brown (5-9, 180), who was UAM’s second leading rusher, also back.
The defense boasts several returning starters, as well. The Weevils’ leading tackler from last fall, senior linebacker Ja’lon Watts (5-9, 190), sophomore defensive back Christian Jefferson (6-0, 180) and senior linebacker Wesley Williams (5-10, 220) are all back to leads UAM’s stop troops in 2017.
Watts recorded 66 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss last year, Jefferson finished with 59 tackles and one interception, and Williams had 55 tackles and one interception.
Jackson had 52 returning lettermen, six offensive starters and seven defensive starters among the 118 players he greeted on the first day of practice Monday. Among that group are 22 seniors.
Around the GAC, the Muleriders bring back 12 All-GAC performers. Quarterback Barrett Renner, running back Michael Nunnery and tight end Tanner Hudson all earned All-GAC second-team honors. Renner registered his second consecutive 3,000-yard season and threw for 27 touchdowns. Nunnery rushed for 1,110 yards and 12 touchdowns while Hudson caught 48 passes for 763 yards and scored nine times. He also ranked third in the GAC with a 41.9 average as punter.
With Jonathan Weisheit and Karonce Higgins joining Hudson, SAU returns its top three receivers. The Mulerider defense features first-team All-GAC tackle Travis William and second-team linebackers Corey Jenkins, Malik Preston and Stacy Lawrence.
Harding, which rolled through the conference with an 11-0 record a year ago, became the first GAC program to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Bisons’ 13-1 finish was the most wins ever by a collegiate team in Arkansas. They return 11 starters, including eight on offense. They must replace GAC Player of the Year Park Parish and Defensive Player of the Year Trevon Biglow. The Bisons also have new leadership as Paul Simmons replaces the retired Ronnie Huckeba.
Henderson State brings back their two quarterbacks, Andrew Black and Evan Lassiter, who combined for 3,249 yards and 21 touchdowns. Jeremy Wilson tallied 10 rushing touchdowns as a freshman. On defense, the Reddies feature Sam Johnson, who ranked second in the conference with 6.0 sacks and Cameron Sonnier, whose 15.0 TFL also placed second in the league.
Those three teams were the only squads to earn more than 100 points in the poll—and just four points separated the three. SAU ended up with 110, Harding with 107 and Henderson with 106.
The rest of the poll was Ouachita, fourth with 90 points; Southeastern Oklahoma State University, fifth with 82; and Arkansas Tech University, sixth with 80. The remainder of the teams were markedly below that point total.
Southwestern Oklahoma was seventh with 60 points, followed by UAM with 44. Northwestern Oklahoma State University finished ninth with 40 points, and East Central (10th, 38), Oklahoma Baptist (11th, 24) and Southern Nazarene (12th, 11) rounded out the group.
Ouachita features GAC Freshman of the Year Allie Freeman, who amassed 1,416 all-purpose yards—third amongst all Division II freshmen. Ouachita also returns the running back tandem of Kris Oliver and Shun’cee Thomas, who combined for 1,372 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.
Southeastern Oklahoma went 7-4 but must replace Ronnie Green, who in 2016 set the league’s single-season rushing record, and Devlon Wortham, who finished as the GAC’s all-time leading rusher. The Savage Storm must also replace Raheem Wilson, a first-team All-America defensive back. The Wonder Boys finished with a 6-5 record to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time since three straight from 2004-06.
Southwestern Oklahoma returns Karltrell Henderson, who has rushed for 28 touchdowns in his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, including 17 last year. Northwestern Oklahoma’s Horatio Smith hauled in nine touchdown receptions and totaled a GAC-leading 1,495 all-purpose yards. Oklahoma Baptist brings back Isaiah Mallory, a first-team All-GAC running back who gained 1,083 yards and scored nine touchdowns.
Once again, all GAC games will be against conference foes. UAM opens the 2017 season at home Southwestern Oklahoma at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2 at Willis “Convoy” Leslie Cotton Boll Stadium.
The league season opens on Thursday, Aug. 31 with a quartet of games, headlined by Harding hosting Henderson State and SAU visiting Arkansas Tech. The opening night also features Northwestern Oklahoma traveling to Ouachita and Southeastern Oklahoma facing Southern Nazarene.
On Sept. 2, the other game besides UAM-Southwestern will be East Central taking on Oklahoma Baptist as part of the ESPN3/Division II Football Showcase.

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