Bobby Wallace and his coaching staff seemed to be defying the odds midway through the first season of his return to North Alabama.
The Lions were 5-1 after a victory at Texas A&M-Kingsville on Oct. 6. A Gulf South Conference championship and a berth in the Division II playoffs suddenly appeared to be realistic goals.
That all changed over the final five weeks of the season. UNA lost its final four games to finish 5-5, the first non-winning season and first time to miss making the playoffs since 2004.
While disappointed in the ending, Wallace said he was proud of the way young team played this season.
“Obviously, North Alabama should not be happy at 5-5 and I’m not happy at 5-5,” Wallace said. “But I’m realistic enough to understand what we had to do this year.
“I hope people are unhappy that we are 5-5, but I hope they are happy with the way the program is changing. I’m proud of what these kids stand for and I’m excited about where we are going.”
Wallace knew this season would be a rebuilding year for the Lions as he reshaped the program from one that relied on Division I transfers under former coach Terry Bowden, to one that is based on bringing in high school prospects.
The new coaching staff signed 41 high school prospects and had 70 total freshmen on the roster this season.
Playing several freshmen was a given this season. Injuries, however, forced more freshmen to play prominent roles this year.
The injuries began on the first day of practice when junior college transfer Justin Rogers, who was expected to compete for a starting spot at cornerback, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles.
During UNA’s only fall scrimmage, senior safety Nick Williams and senior wide receiver Chris Simpson each suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and were also lost for the season. Linebacker Rod Woodson later suffered a broken leg during UNA’s fifth game.
“We played a ton of young people this year,” Wallace said. “The 10 surgeries we had and losing 10 guys at this level is almost impossible to overcome. I don’t think our defense was the same after we lost Woodson.”
The defense held up through the first half of the season, but they took their toll in the final four games.
Despite the four-game losing streak to end the season, Wallace said he saw plenty of good things this year.
“There’s a lot of positives I can see,” he said. “I think the most positive thing is that if you asked our seniors about this year they would say that they enjoyed it. We’re going to win, but it’s how you win that is so important. We’re going to get there.”
Several individuals put together fine seasons for UNA. Junior linebacker Tavarius Wilson led the GSC in tackles with 112 total stops. Junior safety Caleb Massey was second in the conference with 87 tackles and had five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
The Lions had seven true freshmen start this season, including safety Floyd Jones, who started all 10 games. Cornerback Jalen Reedus, quarterback Luke Wingo and wide receiver Lee Mayhall were among the other freshmen starters, while redshirt freshman Lamonte Thompson led the team with 690 yards rushing.
“I’m more excited than I was when I took the job,” Wallace said. I’m excited because I love these young kids we’re going to be watching play. It’s going to be fun.”
Wallace said he will have four assistant coaches visiting the Mississippi junior colleges this week. While UNA will continue to focus on high school prospects, Wallace said the coaching staff would like to add a few junior college players.
“We’re looking for a select few positions such as defensive tackle, maybe cornerback and a difference-maker at wide receiver,” he said. “They all have to be good and have the type of character that we want to bring into this program. We’re not going to sign one just to sign one. If we don’t find what we need we’ll look somewhere else.”
Wallace is excited about having all the freshmen go through the offseason program and spring practice. He said he is already excited about the 2013 season.
“Usually at this time of year I’m ready for a little break, but I’m looking forward to August already,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do before then, but it’s going to be fun. I can’t wait till next season.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.