HAMMOND - So how do you turn around the fortunes of a team that finished 2-9 and tied for last place in the Southland Conference standings last season?
If you’re Southeastern Louisiana University football coach Mike Lucas, it starts with the little things.
“We lost a lot of very close ballgames,” Lucas, who is entering his fifth full season, said. “We had too many penalties, we missed too many tackles in critical situations and we turned the ball over in some critical situations. Those are all things we worked on in spring ball and things that we can correct. We’ve just got to get better at it and roll from there.”
They will roll into the season with a number of key returnees on offense, led by the receiving trio of first-team All-SLC pick Simmie Yarbrough (60 receptions, 709 yards, nine touchdowns last season), Texas transfer Brandon Collins (56-875, four TDs) and Kory Theodore (34-622, four TDs).
Lucas said he’s equally excited about a crop of young receivers led by former Central standout Jae Cutno.
“There are going to be some names that people haven’t heard before - some redshirt guys and transfer guys that are going to really make an impact,” Lucas said. “It will be very difficult for people to defend us.”
The Lions also have some depth at quarterback with junior Brian Young returning and redshirt freshman Jordan Barnett. Also in the mix are Brian Ensminger of Hahnville and Ole Miss transfer Nathan Stanley.
“Right now, Brian’s (Young) our starter,” Lucas said. “He’s earned it. He started a couple of ballgames last year and did really well. You look back at last year, should have started him more, should have played him more. The thing I’ve been most impressed with, he’s always been a good skill-level guy, but his leadership in the spring and the offseason. (He’s) really taken ownership.”
At running back, former Springfield standout Zeke Jones returns with Sam Fairley. Lucas said Jordan Wells, former Ponchatoula standout Michael Chaney and Varnado’s LaTruan Weary had solid springs.
“(Weary) and Chaney and Jordan Wells are all more of those speed guys that when you throw a screen pass they can maybe take it to the house, where Zeke’s just going to go down and punish the safety,” Lucas said. “Sam, of course, is just that consistent guy that you know he’s going to be at the right place at the right time in protection and all those kinds of things.”
They’ll look to run behind an offensive line which returns three starters but lost tackle Kevin Hughes, who recently signed a free-agent contract with the St. Louis Rams.
“We’re losing Kevin Hughes, but we feel like Gasten Gabriel from West Feliciana played well for us last year and really has matured during the spring,” Lucas said. “Josh Penton, our center, is our leader up there.”
Lucas is also hoping the addition of tight ends Antoine Duplessis (Tulane), C.J. Ogbuehi and Jordan Moon will give the Lions a new wrinkle in their offensive scheme.
Defensively, Lucas’ biggest question mark is at linebacker, where the Lions must replace stalwarts Mark Newbill and Ryan Godare.
The Lions will turn to a group including Avery Crooks, former Catholic standout Jordan McClay and Tay Alford - who moves from safety to linebacker - to take over. Freshmen Kaleb Muse (Ponchatoula), Drew Misita (Oak Forest), Parris Stewart (Ascension Catholic), Tyler Tourelle (St. Paul’s) and sophomore John Roberts of St. Michael the Archangel are also in the mix for playing time at linebacker.
“The freshmen that we signed that have been here for the summer excite us,” Lucas said. “Those guys can roll, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some freshmen out there.”
Devin Boutwell, former Catholic High standout Devan Walker and Tramaine Lucas (Glen Oaks) return on the defensive line. The Lions also added Ponchatoula’s Jonathan Kinchen, Frank Bryant (Fort Scott CC), Mairo Stovall (Miss. Gulf Coast CC) and Jerrod Black (Iowa State).
“I feel good about our D-line for the first time in forever, where we’ve got depth and size and speed and what we’re looking for up front,” Lucas said. “And hopefully that will be able to protect our linebackers as they get into the swing of things.”
After allowing 237.9 passing yards per game last season, the SLU secondary will get a boost with the return of cornerback Robert Alford, who missed last season with an injury, and the addition of cornerback Todd Washington from Memphis. Kevin Roberts (East Miss. CC) and Marice Sutton will man the safety spots.
Former St. Michael quarterback Jeremy Meyers is also in the mix at safety after moving from quarterback.
“I think Todd and Robert could be as good a pair of corners as anybody in the conference,” Lucas said.
“Last year, there were times when we could play great on first down and second down and there was nothing we could do on third down to stop people at the corner position, and that’s not going to be the situation now,” Lucas continued.
Kicker Seth Sebastian and punter Beau Mothe also return, but Lucas said it will take a team approach for the Lions to be successful this season.
“We’ve got to play together,” Lucas said. “There’s no great individuals. If you look at the preseason all-conference team, there are only two guys from here. That’s good. We need a little motivation that way. Championships aren’t won by all-conference individuals. Championships are won by football teams. We’ve got to be a team.”