They’ve got the big quarterback and fast receiver, home-grown linemen and a talented bunch of linebackers.
What the Northern Colorado Bears don’t have, in their six-plus seasons in the Big Sky Conference, is many wins.
Heading into their Saturday homecoming game against the Montana Grizzlies, the Bears have a total of five Big Sky triumphs. They have nine wins overall.
It’s enough to make a former Bear growl a little.
“I don’t know how it got to that point,” said second-year UNC coach Earnest Collins Jr., who played for the Joe Glenn-coached Bears from 1991-94 and was later an assistant coach. “When I left here in 2002 we ended the season at 12-2. And there were some good things going, heading into the jump into Division I football.
“From then until now, it’s been a mindset change.”
In 2003, UNC’s first year in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Bears went 9-2. They’ve averaged two victories a year since.
“It’s not about the athletic skill, though we are hurting in some spots still, where we have to plug holes,” said Collins. “It’s just the attitude piece of it – just believing you can win, week-in and week-out.”
Northern Colorado sits an hour north of Denver and drew enough talent from close by to win back-to-back Division II national championships in 1995-96. Glenn, a Griz assistant in the 80s, moved from Greeley to Montana in 2000. That recruiting base stayed.
Currently, all four starters on UNC’s defensive line, including Gavin Miller of Greeley, are from Colorado.
At linebacker there is Clarence Bumpas, a Colorado Springs product who began his career at Kansas State; now the junior is a Buck Buchanan Award candidate.
Bracketing Bumpas are Herve Tonye-Tonye – who began his career under Collins at Alcorn State – and Leilon Washington. Washington spent a year at Central Florida, but Collins doesn’t think of the Denver product as a drop-down.
“Technically he’s a transfer but for us in the recruiting process, especially in-state, we’re going to every kid we’re allowed to talk to,” Collins said. “Whether he’s a five-star or has no stars behind his name.
“I told him, ‘If you’re not happy where you end up going, you have a home to come to.’ We actually recruited that kid knowing we probably didn’t have a chance to get him. But there’s always a chance he could come back to us.”
Bumpas has by far the most tackles, with 41; Tonye-Tonye and corner Marcel Gibbons, a senior out of Colorado Springs, are next at 21 each.
“The talent’s good, man,” said Gibbons, whose only D-1 scholarship offer came from UNC. “It’s getting everybody on the same page, and everybody to buy in. Once you get everybody loving what’s going on, that’s when the wins start to happen.”
Receiver Jace Davis, like Gibbons, had few offers coming out of Lone Tree, Colo., which sits a half-hour south of Denver. He’d found trouble in high school, he said, and early looks from Kansas State and Boise State dried up.
“I didn’t think I was going to play,” said Davis, who was recruited by former UNC coach Scott Downing. “But they were one of the schools that offered me.”
Davis, a junior, was an academic casualty last season after catching 53 passes for 992 yards and earning all-Big Sky honors in 2010. With 17 catches and 203 yards this season, he now sits 17th on UNC’s career receiving yards with 1,358.
He’s been 6-foot-5 quarterback Seth Lobato’s main target so far, though the duo has yet to combine on a touchdown.
“It’s hard for a QB and a receiver to get their timing,” Davis said. “I think he’s a great quarterback. I’m just going to keep working for him and I know he’s going to keep doing the same for me.”
Lobato, who redshirted a year at Colorado before transferring over, is a third-year starter who has two 400-yard games to his credit.
“Seth has a powerful arm,” said Collins. “And he knows our offense and he can get the ball where it needs to go. Seth is an awesome young man. He has the size and the skill set.”
Now Lobato and the rest of the Bears just need to get the wins.
“I believe we’re on the verge of a W,” said Davis. “We’ve been grinding so long, working so hard for so long, we’re due to get a win.”
“I’ve been saying the last week or so that I like our football team because the mindset is starting to change,” Collins said. “Our attitude has been pretty good in practice and in our meetings.
“Our kids are starting to believe in themselves again, and that was lost for a long time. I don’t know where that was, or how that escaped us.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at email@example.com or @Fritz_Neighbor.