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The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff got a late start in recruiting junior wide receiver Josh Wilkes, but for Coach Cedric Thomas, it's better late than never.

Wilkes has made an immediate impact for the Golden Lions, and he's starting to turn heads nationally, too. After two games, the 6-foot-3, 183-pounder leads the Southwestern Athletic Conference in receiving yards (420) and touchdowns (4), while his 14 catches are tied for first. His yardage total also is second in the Football Championship Subdivision, but to truly gauge how much of a difference-maker he's been for UAPB, look no further than the team's receiving statistics from 2017.

Senior running back KeShawn Williams led the Golden Lions in receiving yards with 339, sophomore Tyrin Ralph was tops with 39 catches and junior Kolby McNeal had a team-leading three TD receptions. Wilkes already has surpassed both Williams' and McNeal's output, and barring injury, he's on track to eclipse Ralph's total by Week 6.

Thomas was hired in December, which caused him to get off to a late start in recruiting. He admitted that he had to depend on film and others' accounts of Wilkes to initially convince the speedster to consider joining the Golden Lions.

"The biggest thing was to take the best available players when I got here," Thomas said. "Coach [Jermaine] Gales, our offensive coordinator, had coached a couple of his relatives through the bloodline and understood who he was. He's a good character kid, and those are the types we want to be a part of the program.

"Outside of the athleticism, we want kids that are going to come in and do things right. Once we signed off on that, it was a blessing that we got him right as camp started."

Wilkes received several scholarship offers after putting up gaudy numbers at South Pointe (S.C.) High School. He originally committed to Eastern Michigan in 2015 prior to his senior year but eventually landed at Butler Community College in Kansas. Last season, he caught 23 passes for 555 yards and 7 touchdowns in 9 games. Other Division I programs took notice, but Wilkes ultimately decided on UAPB and didn't waste any time bonding with his quarterbacks once he got to campus.

"We practice a lot on our timing routes," said Wilkes, who caught 7 passes for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Golden Lions' 55-0 victory over Cumberland (Tenn.) University. "I've got a very good connection with all my quarterbacks, from the first string to the fourth string. I don't have really have a preference with any of them because we're just trying to prove a point.

"The whole team, we're all trying to prove a point to everybody, and that's what we're going to do."

Wilkes will get a chance to make a bigger impression Saturday when UAPB travels to Brookings, S.D., to take on FCS No. 3-ranked South Dakota State. Thomas, however, isn't worried about Wilkes.

"This kid can play on any level," Thomas said. "Looking at his background and the scholarship offers he had not only out of high school but also junior college kind of entails that. My thing is if he played on South Dakota's team or if he played on a Division I team, he would still put up those types of numbers.

"We're just blessed to have him here."

Fast and faster

In years past, UAPB generally played at a moderate to slow pace, which occasionally resulted in delay of game penalties or an excess of called timeouts.

Those days seem to be over.

The Golden Lions are wasting very little time from their previous play. There were moments during Saturday's game against Cumberland (Tenn.) University where UAPB would snap the ball before the chains were set, causing officials to occasionally stop play and force the Golden Lions to re-snap. The change of pace is only a part of the big picture for UAPB Coach Cedric Thomas.

"I want it fast, fast, fast," Thomas said. "I felt like last week [against Morehouse], plays were being snapped in probably 14, 15 seconds. I know from a defensive standpoint, it gives me fits when that ball is being snapped at 9, 8, 10 seconds.

"So we made a concerted effort to play faster. For the most part, we stuck to the script and put the pedal to the metal by being really fast and up tempo."

Heavy hitters

Linebacker Kevin Agee said the UAPB coaching staff challenged the defense following their lukewarm performance in the season opener, but according to him, it really wasn't necessary.

"We wanted to show them who we really were," Agee said. "Coach [Thomas] asked us before the game, 'who are we', and we wanted to show who we were as a defense. We wanted to show that we could fly around and not make the mental mistakes that we did last game."

After giving up more than 560 yards in Week 1, UAPB allowed 225 against Cumberland. The Golden Lions, who harassed the Phoenix quarterbacks nearly every time they dropped back, recorded eight tackles for losses and finished with five sacks. Even with a huge halftime lead, Agee was adamant the defense wouldn't let up in the second half. That was evident on back-to-back plays during Cumberland's final possession. On third and 10 from UAPB's 12, Agee beat the Cumberland offensive tackle around the edge and hit quarterback Joseph Rushin hard, causing an incompletion. It took Rushin a few moments to get up, but on the next snap he was rocked by UAPB's Jaylon Miller and Rashaad Clayton on a crushing hit.

"We still have to stay discipled and play the scheme the way it's supposed to be played," he said. "We've got a goal, you've got to stay focused if you're going to accomplish it."

Tough task

No. 3 South Dakota State has the credentials to back up its ranking.

South Dakota State has been to the FCS playoffs for the past six seasons, including a semifinal berth last year, and is 38-16 since 2014. The Jackrabbits also have won 14 of their past 16 games at home.

"They're a real physical and sound ballclub," Thomas said. "If you look at the track record of those guys, they're always in the playoffs and play on a high level. I think it's a great litmus [test] for us to see where we're at."

The Jackrabbits had their season opener at Iowa State cancelled after two possessions because of thunderstorms, but they bounced back last week with a 45-14 thrashing of Montana State behind a 319-yard, 4-touchdown performance from quarterback Christion Taryn. South Dakota State finished with 519 total yards while allowing 193.

Josh Wilkes
KeShawn Williams
Cedric Thomas

Sports on 09/14/2018

Print Headline: Juco WR stands out in SWAC

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