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‘The Echo’ previews Ole Miss vs. Central Arkansas game

The Daily Mississippian sports editor David Collier caught up with the University of Central Arkansas’ sports editor Lee Hogan to discuss Saturday’s season opener between Ole Miss and Central Arkansas.

David Collier: Tell us about about this Central Arkansas team. What do they bring to the table as they head into the season?
Lee Hogan: You have a lot of returning guys that had a successful 2011 season. They made their first appearance in the FCS playoffs last year. They finished up the season 9-4. They’ve got a lot of big play guys on offense, especially at running back and wide receiver. 
There are a few question marks at quarterback and offensive line, replacing some guys, most notably at quarterback replacing Nathan Dick, who was a first team all-conference quarterback last year. They have to replace him there and a couple of guys on the offensive line, which is really the biggest question mark with this team right now. 
On the defensive side of the ball, again, there are a lot of returning guys – nine starters from last season. It wasn’t a great defense. They were near the bottom of the league in total defense and at the bottom of the league in pass defense. You have a lot of guys coming back with experience that have played the schedule numerous times. There are a lot of leaders at the linebacker spot. A new guy in Justin Heard, he’s a junior. Coming back, they have Seth Allison. He’s a first team all-conference guy. Up front on the defensive line, the team looks good, a lot of returning starters. 
There’s a lot of confidence in this team with the coaching staff and players alike. They feel they’re set to have a pretty competitive 2012 season.
DC: What have been some of the main storylines in fall camp?
LH: The two big ones have been quarterback, where they have a new guy that is going to start in junior Wynrick Smothers. He’s had a lot of time in the system but just hasn’t gotten a chance to start yet. He’s backed up a lot of good guys here. The first guy is Nathan Brown. He’s actually the quarterbacks coach now. Then, Nathan Dick – an Arkansas transfer – who started two years and had a really great career here. Smothers is finally getting his chance. He seems pretty poised, pretty confident that he can replace Nathan Dick this season. The team looks good there. The guys are rallying around him. They all know him. He’s been here for four years. That seems to be OK. We’ll see when the season gets started. 
The biggest question mark for this team this year is on the offensive line. They’re replacing three guys from last season. They do have one guy coming back and that is a first team all-Southland Conference guy in Dominique Allen; he’s a tackle. There’s another guy in Corey Howard that has moved to center this season and has coped with some injuries this fall. The offensive line has dominated with their injuries trying to move guys around and find five guys up front that can be up there every down to protect the quarterback and make some holes in the run game.
DC: Other than the offensive line, have there been any other injuries this fall?
LH: Not any injuries, really. (Central Arkansas head) coach (Clint) Cronque described them as camp injuries – just a lot of guys with sore calfs, hamstrings that have had some guys sit out. 
They do have their main running back Jackie Hinton. He’s a senior this year. He had some offseason ankle surgery, and he’s returning. They’re slow to bring him back. In fall camp in some scrimmages, he’s been limited to four carries and 10 plays. They really don’t want to take a chance getting him hurt, but they do want to get him in game shape and get him some hits so it’s not a big deal when the season rolls around. You can tell he’s a difference maker for this team. He’s a fast guy. He’s big at 210 pounds for a UCA running back. He really makes a difference when he’s on the field. 
Other than that, there haven’t been any big injuries on this team so far.
DC: What kind of offense does Central Arkansas run?
LH: Coach Conque usually has more of a passing offense. We’ll see with Wynrick being in his first game if they want to rely more on the run game. You can expect the ball to be thrown around 25-30 times and a good dose of run mixed in. 
They have a guy that y’all are familiar with in Jesse Grandy, who transferred from Ole Miss. He’s been a really big wide receiver threat and in special teams here at UCA. He’s pretty much the No. 1 receiver right now also joined with Dominique Croom, who is also coming off a good year last year with 518 yards and seven touchdowns. There’s a lot of talent at wide receiver so expect them to throw the ball around. 
If Jackie Hinton is 100 percent and coach Conque lets him go, I expect to see him get a lot of carries in the backfield, and he could make a difference in the game for them. 
DC: What kind of impact did Jesse Grandy make last year, and what is expected of him this year?
LH: He made a huge impact. He was a second team all-Southland Conference wide receiver last year. He led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He was also big in the return game. He was the main kick returner and punt returner. This year, the coaches have pretty much said that he is their big play threat. He’s expected to come in and be a good leader a wide receiver. 
I’ve talked to him, and he’s pretty excited about coming back to Ole Miss. He said he’s got some special memories of that place. He still has some friends on the team. He mentioned Ja-Mes Logan and Randall Mackey in particular. He’s ready to get his 2012 senior season started in coming home to Ole Miss.
DC: Flipping to the other side of the ball, what can Ole Miss fans expect to see from the Central Arkansas defense?
LH: They have a lot of returning guys up front. Markeith Gaines, he’s a junior that seems to be ready for a breakout year. Coach Conque said he is playing out of his mind in fall camp. He’s a really good pass rusher. He’s a little undersized, so I don’t know how he’ll do against a big SEC offensive line. It seems he is the main pass rusher for UCA. 
At linebacker, they’ve got two guys that are coming back – one of them is actually coming back from injury at one of the outside spots in Rojae Jackson. Coach has been really impressed with him and glad to have him back. The other outside linebacker is Seth Allison. He’s a real leader on the team. He got some All-American nods on the FCS level heading into this season and was a first team all-conference guy last season.
Moving into the secondary, it was a bad secondary last year - last in the Southland Conference in pass defense last year. They’ve got their free safety back. Radarius Winston missed last season with a knee injury. Coach Conque has praised him multiple times and said it’s been great to have him back there. They only lost one starter, and he was actually replacing Winston in the secondary last season, so there are a lot of returning guys that you can expect to see some improvement from there. 
I think the big thing on this defense is the defensive line and Markeith Gaines getting to the quarterback. 
DC: What have the coaches been saying about the improvement of the secondary? Do they believe another year of experience will pay off?
LH: Yeah, you have a lot of guys that were sophomores last year that were still learning the system and passing schemes. On both sides at corner, they both are juniors there and have two years of experience. Expect to see some improvement there. But the big thing is the return of Radarius Winston. He was an all-conference guy his freshman year and was injured last year. Coach Conque has been really excited about his return. He just adds leadership and can coach some guys to help them be in the position they need to be and help them to grow. Coach Conque really expects him to up the level of this secondary this season.
DC: What’s the mindset with this Central Arkansas team heading into the first game of the season against Ole Miss? Do they see this as a big opportunity for them?
LH: Coach Conque, I’ve talked to him about that. He’s trying to downplay that a little bit. He wants the guys to focus on what they’re doing, and I think that’s what all FCS opponents should do when they’re heading into a matchup like this against an SEC opponent. This will be the first one for UCA, so he’s trying to keep guys focused on their individual jobs - to not get out of their levels. He talked about that with Jesse Grandy with him returning to Ole Miss. He said he wants him to stay within his abilities and that would give the team a chance. 
He also knows that UCA will be fighting an uphill battle. Even with Ole Miss and the struggles that they’ve had, they’ve got a great coach in Hugh Freeze that UCA is familiar with. They lost to him last year when he was at Arkansas State. Coach Conque did talk about that and studying a lot of Arkansas State film for schemes and Ole Miss film to see the players that stood out to him. He did mention the increased size and speed and strength that SEC players seem to have across the board. He knew that would be a big difference and something that UCA is just going to have to deal with. He knows that and he just wants his players to stay within themselves and keep it close and have a chance at the end of the game. 
For continuing coverage of Ole Miss football, follow @thedm_sports and @DavidLCollier on Twitter.