LAKE CHARLES – Considering the league has half of its football-playing members hailing from Louisiana, you've got to go a long way down the preseason predictions to find a state team that figures to be in the chase for the Southland Conference title.
The league unveiled its preseason coaches and SID football polls here Tuesday at the league's annual Media Day, and none of the Louisiana teams cracked the top three.
That wasn't a surprise. Perennial league contender McNeese State, tabbed fourth in the polls, is coming off back-to-back 6-5 seasons and had to win three in a row to finish 2011 with a winning season. Northwestern State, one of the league's improved teams last year, and Southeastern Louisiana tied for fifth and Nicholls State was tabbed eighth – last – by the league coaches after those three teams combined to go 9-24 last season.
"This league's certainly better top to bottom than it was a few years ago, no question," said McNeese coach Matt Viator. "There's a lot of teams in this league that, if everything goes right and they avoid injuries, can compete with anybody."
Sam Houston State proved that last year. The Bearkats ran off 14 straight wins in running away with the league title, and advanced all the way to the FCS national title game in Frisco, Texas, before falling to North Dakota State.
And since SHSU has 19 starters back from last year, including five players who were named to at least one All-America squad, it wasn't hard to figure out who would top the preseason poll. In fact, Sam Houston had the most votes possible in both the coaches and SID polls (teams could not vote for themselves in the poll, which is the only reason that Stephen F. Austin had a first-place coaches vote and Central Arkansas had a first-place SID vote).
"We're like everybody in that we've got holes to fill ... except for Sam Houston," said Northwestern State coach Bradley Dale Peveto. "They've got everybody back."
NSU and McNeese came closer than anybody else in the Southland to halting SHSU's win streak last year, and they lost by a combined 50 points (McNeese lost 38-14 and NSU lost 43-17 to the Bearkats).
"It's all about playing consistently," said SHSU coach Willie Fritz, whose team was picked fourth in last year's preseason poll. "That's our challenge this year, to keep the consistency going that we had last year."
Throw out the 17-6 loss to North Dakota State in the title game, and Sam Houston averaged more than 39 points per game last season – and also ranked first nationally in rushing defense and second nationally in scoring defense.
Expect even more this year, since among the 50 returning lettermen are reigning conference player of the year Tim Flanders, offensive player of the year Richard Sincere and defensive player of the year Darnell Taylor.
SFA and Central Arkansas were tabbed second and third, with McNeese's fourth-place pick matching the Cowboys' 2011 finish in the league (4-3). The Cowboys do return 15 starters and 53 players with experience including three-time all-conference selection Malcolm Bronson, who led the team in tackles last year with 80 and was second on the team with three interceptions from his free safety slot.
"Malcolm's been our leader back there for four years," Viator said. "He had to do that when he was a freshman. But the best thing about him is that he's taken each year and made it his goal to get better, and he's gotten better every year. He's also the energy of our team ... he enjoys being a part of it."
Northwestern returns 20 players who saw at least some starting duty off a team that was 5-3 overall and 3-1 in the league at the end of last October ... and lost its last three games by a combined 121-37.
"We had to learn how to finish as a football team," Peveto said. "The last two years we've had chances to strike in the last two or three games and we haven't done it. We have to find a way to get over that hump ... we've tried to find ways to coach that, and I think we've made a lot of progress there this spring."
Southeastern's tie for fifth in the poll is likely related to the off-season changeover that brought the highly respected Ron Roberts to Hammond. The Southland's only first-year coach guided Delta State to four Gulf South Conference titles and four NCAA Division II playoff appearances in five years, winning double-figure games four of those years.
"We're going to be a lot more physical," said Lion senior offensive lineman Paul Roppolo of SLU's 3-8 finish in 2011. "Last year our biggest problem was we sat back and took a lot. This staff brought in a physical presence. We hit a lot more in the spring, and this year instead of getting hit we're going to hit people in the mouth."
Nicholls State also figures to have a different look after being quarterback-centered over the first two years of coach Charlie Stubbs' tenure. After going 1-10 and losing their last 10 last season, Stubbs moved the versatile LaQuintin Caston from option quarterback to wide receiver and will go for a more balanced attack with pro-style quarterback Landry Klann and running back Marcus Washington leading the way.
"We were so porous up front last year, we had to put an athlete back there at quarterback," Stubbs said. "We started four true freshmen in the offensive line against Sam Houston. Now we're more at the point that we can do things I want to do offensively. I feel good that we're going to be more than competitive."
2012 SLC Preseason Coaches Poll
Rank Team (1st Place Votes) Total
1. Sam Houston State (7) 49
2. Stephen F. Austin (1) 39
3. Central Arkansas 38
4. McNeese State 34
T5. Northwestern State 21
T5. Southeastern Louisiana 21
7. Lamar 13
8. Nicholls State 8
SID Preseason Poll
1. Sam Houston State (7) 49
2. Stephen F. Austin 38
3. Central Arkansas (1) 37
4. McNeese State 35
5. Northwestern State 26
6. Southeastern Louisiana 16
7. Lamar 15
8. Nicholls State 8
Southland Conference Football Media Day - Coach and Player Quotes
Matt Viator, Head Coach
“Most of kids are coming back and that is exciting, we went through a stretch last year where we lost a couple of close game but then we rebounded from that. I’m encouraged because we get a lot of the kids back that were injured last year.
“I’m very excited for not only have the players we have coming back but we have the right players coming back. To have the kids coming back on offense and the one’s we are getting back from injury and also the ones we have on defense is very excited about the season.
“We have great senior leadership, we have young men that were playing and starting in 2009, the last time we won it, there is a hunger to get back and I think they understand that.
“Jonathan Landry represents six seniors on the offensive line. We have all our kids back with the addition of Miguel Gauthreaux who gets his season back after being injured prior to the season last year. He represents a great core of seniors on the O-line that they have all but one that has graduated.
“Malcolm has been the leader of our secondary for the past three years. What I’m most proud of him is that he has gotten better each year. He didn’t let early stardom get to him; he represents the heart of our team.”
Jonathan Landry, Offensive Tackle
“We have a big advantage of an experienced offensive line that is going block for our running backs and as a running back they have to trust us that we will do that for them. Also when things get tough in the huddle, we are there to calm things down and keep things going as planned.
“It all starts up front and I really believe that. If we are doing well, then the team is doing well.”
Malcolm Bronson, Free Safety
“Growing up, I always enjoyed watching my uncle (Zack) play football on Sundays but there was never any pressure on me to play football, it’s just something that I love and I made the decision on my own to come to McNeese because this was a great program to play for and a place to spend the next four years of my life here.”
“At this point I can’t comprehend the relevance of being a four time All-Southland Conference performer. I love the game and just go out and practice hard to prepare to be the best player that I can be.”
Head Coach Charlie Stubbs
On his returning players
“We have a lot of guys back who had significant playing experience last season, but it’s hard to say who are starters will be. It was like a Rolodex last season with our players due to injuries. Against Sam Houston, who was the best team in our conference, we had to start four true freshman on the offensive line, and that’s not a recipe for success, but they did get that experience. We have some all-conference performers, guys who the coaches in the Southland recognized as very good players. Last but not least, we were able to bring in some transfers who should contribute immediately and mix in well with our veterans.”
On his team slogan, “Band of Brothers”
“I like to pick a slogan every year, and this season it’s Band of Brothers. I feel like in order to get this program where it needs to be, we need to be on the same page as a team. We’ve did a great job of retaining players in our program, so I believe that will play a big role in coming together as a team.”
On switching LaQuintin Caston from quarterback to wide receiver
“He has did a great job for us, but now I feel like we’re at a point where I can do things offensively that I want to do. One, I like running the football, and would like the quarterback to run some, but I’d like to go a little different direction for that position. This year, my top two quarterbacks going into the fall camp are Landry Klann from San Antonio, and Beaux Hebert from Atlanta. I still plan on using LaQuintin in the Wildcat formation. I talked to him about the switch after the season, and he understood. One thing was that if I made a change at quarterback last season, there standing next to me was one of our best athletes, and I didn’t want to have that.”
Siegan Vergenal, Defensive Back
On last season
“Last year was tough. It’s not that we had a bad team, we just couldn’t finish games. We lost a few of them in the third or fourth quarter. But now, our team has a chip on its shoulder. I think everybody is getting excited because of our tough schedule that coach put together. Coach Stubbs believes in us and wants us to face the toughest opponents, so we’re eager to get out there and forget about last season.”
On being picked last in the preseason polls
“That’s just extra motivation. We are already motivated, but seeing our team at the bottom of both polls definitely pushes us to prove people wrong. I don’t think it’s disrespectful or anything, but it definitely puts a chip on our shoulder.”
Marcus Washington, Running Back
On not finishing games last season
“Some of the games last season, we started out playing well, but just couldn’t finish in the second half. If a bad play happened, it took us out of the game and we never recovered. We just need to come together and work harder as a team. That’s one of the things that we’ll focus on heading into fall camp. Our leaders will have to lead a little more so we can fix it.”
On playing on the road
“My two years, I’ve been to some crazy places. The crowd is going to make you, or break you. The crowd tries to get in your head, and I love it. Some places, the crowd is right there and you hear every word coming out their mouth. So I think to myself, “Alright, I’m going to show you next play”. Then you go out there and do it, and say, “Okay, what do you have to say now.” So they realize that you’re a good player, and they move on to the next person. So your goal is to quite them a little bit.”
Bradley Dale Peveto, Head Coach
“We’ve had a great offseason, we had a fantastic spring, and our senior leadership is really good. We have 13 starters back, seven on offense, six on defense. Any time your starting quarterback returns, it’s good, and when it’s a guy who is a dual threat, who has the leadership qualities that Brad Henderson gives us, your team has a great chance.
“We have both specialists back. John Shaughnessy was 14 of 16 on field goals last year and has made his last 12 straight. Nic Russo returns as our punter who averaged a little under 40 yards per punt, but more importantly did what we asked and was very accurate placing a lot of our punts. We only had a handful returned last fall. Our coverage teams have been really good. Phillip Harvey is an explosive kickoff returner who has done a great job for us. We have a lot of lettermen back who give us a chance to be great on special teams. We focus on it, we circle it, we practice it, we walk it. We travel a lot of guys to be as good as we can in that phase. Special teams have been very good for us and I think that can be the hidden edge. We have a chance to have a winning edge there.
“We have to run the ball better. We have a great plan, we’ve made some adjustments, we’ve added four transfers on the offensive line, and we have a great addition to our coaching staff with our offensive line coach, Allen Rudolph. We have seven returning starters and a lot of experience on our offensive unit. We have a great nucleus returning. You look at the games we won in 2011, we ran the ball well. When we lost, we didn’t.
“Two other key areas are discipline and the ability to finish. I thought we could take the little things, coach them better and improve on and off the field, and we’ve done that. I didn’t think we were not disciplined last year, but we needed to take it to a higher level and we have. We’ve really emphasized finishing strong. We’ve been in position to win this conference entering November but we haven’t gotten it done. We have to be better down the stretch.
“When you have to replace both corners, it’s a concern, but we had a great spring. Temeni Brewster made a big leap forward this spring after getting into the mix at the start of the conference season last year. Rico Albert is a very talented young corner. We get Imoan Claiborne back after a year away and he’s got a lot of ability. Ryan Sorrell is going to help us this fall.
“We have a lot of talent and experience at safety. Jamaal White, Brashard Booker and Bert White are very talented, proven commodities, and Calvin Morton has experience and really had a fantastic spring.
“When you have Derek Rose, you’re good at linebacker. We have Reggie Toomer behind him who gives us a lot of experience and ability to fit into the other slots. There are a lot of talented young guys who are ready to step up for us this fall, Pat Black, Tyler Smith, Ragan Robichaux and more.
“Up front we have plenty of experience and productivity back, guys who have made plays to help us win. Lesley Deamer had a breakthrough season last year inside at nose, and Anthony Gilbert did outside at end. Wade Williams is a two-year starter. We have a good group of guys who can put their hands down and get it done for us.
“We’re picked fifth, that’s probably where we deserve to start. We haven’t done enough to this point. Polls are interesting but not binding. You look at the history of the polls and how our championship and playoff teams fared in preseason polls, we exceeded those expectations. Sam Houston was picked fourth in the league last year and played for the national championship. We are excited about the chance to move up the ladder this fall. This conference is so competitive, and I believe we’re ready to be in the thick of it and hopefully finish strong.”
Brad Henderson, Quarterback
Feelings going into the 2012 season
“Confidence. I have a year under my belt, and I’m more confident as a quarterback. I minimizing mistakes that I made last year and I’m growing as a quarterback. Last year I won over my teammates, and this year I’m going out there to play with confidence.”
About being the projected starter
“I have to go out there and compete every day because I have great quarterbacks behind me that push me. I try to go out there and compete like I’m running second string.”
Breakdown of the team
“This year we’re more of a shotgun team as where last year we were a power running team. We’re going to try in the ball into a lot of guys’ hands. We had a lot of talented players, but the style of play didn’t allow us to get it to them. This year into a lot different receivers’ hands and that will help out the chemistry of the offense since everyone feels that contribute.”
Learned from last year
“A lot of that has to do with maturity. As a one year starter in this league I have matured. Maturity can help you close out games. Last year, we would come out strong in the first half, but didn’t finish the second half. That’s what you have to do to win football games. You have to go out there and compete for all four quarters.”
On head coach Bradley Dale Peveto
“He’s a player’s coach. Every day he comes and thinks about us first, and some days I think he doesn’t get sleep because he wants to find ways to get this team better. We all genuinely love coach ‘Peve’ because he works so hard making sure we are in the best position to win games. He’s a people person.”
Derek Rose, Linebacker
Thoughts on the upcoming year
“We’re all excited for the year. We have new guys to take over for the guys who left last season. We have new corners, linebackers, and guys up front. The whole team worked extremely hard from offense to defense.”
Effort during the offseason
“We’ve worked so hard. Everyone has come in with a chip on our shoulder and ready to win. We are ready to compete against the best teams. I think the effort will show once the season starts.”
Preseason All-Conference honors
“(Safety) Jamaal (White) and I are very excited and honored by it, but we try not to focus on all of that. Our main goal as a team is to win conference and compete for a national title. It’s a new season and individually, we have to come out and prove why they picked us for those teams.”
Improving how the Demons finish the season
“We were very close the last two years, but now we are a lot mature as a team. We have several guys on our team who are going to step up and be leaders. This summer we’ve been working really hard, and I’m hoping this is the year we can compete for the title.
On head coach Bradley Dale Peveto
“Peve is one of those guys that puts the team first. Nobody is above the team. He’s the leader of this team and we all follow him. He’s a great coach, and in my opinion he’s one of the best. He’s one of the best I’ve been around.”
Ron Roberts, Head Coach
On what attracted you and your staff to Hammond and Southeastern Louisiana
“One, looking at the whole body of work. There is the university, the community, being in a hotbed of recruiting. I thought that the potential that it has for growth. We kind of, as a staff, felt like a new challenge. I thought we tapped it out and it was time to move on and see if we could do it another place.”
On progress of the team during the spring
“I think we made tremendous progress. Our players have been outstanding the way they’ve responded to our coaching staff. I’ve got a great coaching staff that makes it a lot easier. Our players have done everything we’ve asked them to do. Their attitude has been outstanding. Their effort has been unbelievable. We asked them to make a huge commitment to be here and closing the gap from 3-8 to the top of the Southland Conference. And we want to be able to compete for a conference championship. Everything has gone pretty smoothly.”
On the challenges of coaching in the Southland Conference
“It’s exciting coaching in the Southland Conference. If you have a competitive spirit, you want to get in the most competitive environment you can and you want to the opportunity to go against the best. You want the opportunity, not only to see where you are, but to bring out the best. The Southland Conference has a rich tradition and has had many great athletes. It’s something that I’m looking forward to being a part of.”
On opening at Missouri
“It’s a great opportunity to us, it’s going to be a great environment for our kids and it’s going to be an opportunity to go up there and see probably the best football team we’ll face all season. We’re going to see the fastest players and the game played at a different speed. It’s a great opportunity to gauge ourselves against great competition and really tell us where we’ve got to go over the next 10 games.”
Paul Roppolo, Offensive Lineman
On the first season under new head coach Ron Roberts
“Our new staff has really concentrated on making sure we’re having fun and enjoying the game, which is a big part of winning football games. They are trying to instill a winning attitude. We know they come from a great program and are proven winners, so we’re excited about the progress we’ve made in the spring and we’re ready to get going in fall camp.”
On offensive improvements
“We’ve become more focused as a group and we feel like as a unit there’s more of a sense of togetherness. We have to continue to concentrate on our execution. We expect a big improvement in the coming season.”
On the offensive line
“We have a young group, but we’ve been together three seasons now and we can see that experience coming together to make us better up front. We’re close friends off the field and the fact that we know each other so well has really helped us a group. That togetherness and the progress we’ve made under (offensive line) Coach (Travis) Mikel has us excited about the fall.”
On team’s goals in 2012
“We just want to win and we feel if we execute we have the potential to have a great season. Since I’ve been here, we’ve always been a great practice team. To take the next step, we have to take that intensity and focus into game days.”
Tyler Stoddard, Safety
On his expectations heading into his sophomore season
“We’re excited to see how much we’ve changed and improved. We really feel like our defense came together as a unit in the spring. Our new 3-3-5 defense suits the talent we have. We have a lot of speed and this scheme puts in better position to make plays.”
On the leaders of the Lion defense
“When I was coming in last season as a freshman, (senior linebacker) Devan Walker was someone who motivated me and helped me understand the things I needed to do to earn more playing time. Our defensive players see Devan and (senior preseason All-Southland Conference defensive back) Robert Alford as the players we look up to and follow. (Senior linebacker) Tay Alford is another leader for us on that side of the ball because he’s our hardest worker day in and day out.”
On how the Lions match up with the Southland Conference
“After playing everyone in the Southland Conference as a freshman, I can say that we match up well talent-wise with the other teams in this league. The key for us is our willingness to put in the work that’s necessary for us to be successful.”
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