HAMMOND — The closer Southeastern Louisiana’s football team got toward the downtown area for Friday’s “Hot August Nights” celebration, senior tight end Jeremy Meyers couldn’t believe his eyes.
The promotion, sponsored by Hammond’s Downtown Development District, was the latest example of how much the community has embraced its football program after last year’s 11-3 season, Southland Conference championship and Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal appearance.
“You couldn’t walk through the streets because it was so crowded,” said Meyers, a former standout at St. Michael the Archangel. “Everybody wants to be a part of the action, wanted to get autographs. It’s a lot more positive energy going around town. The whole school and town have turned around.”
In just two short seasons, coach Ron Roberts has brought Southeastern Louisiana to new heights, a fact reflected in the rarified area his Lions now occupy.
During last month’s Southland Conference meetings SLU garnered top billing and was selected to successfully defend its league title. Since then the Lions have added to their national résumé with a No. 3 ranking in both the FCS Coaches’ and Sports Network Top 25 polls.
“We’re very excited obviously about this season,” Roberts said during Saturday’s Media Day activities at Strawberry Stadium. “There’s a lot of high expectations but I don’t think there are any higher expectations than the ones we have inside our locker room door. I’ve been pleased with how our guys have handled their business on a day-to-day basis.”
The team’s leading returning rusher, junior Rasheed Harrell, said the lofty preseason rankings serve more of a purpose to fuel their fan base and won’t shake the team’s singular focus.
“We try and set our own expectations and not worry about being preseason number three because it’s preseason,” Harrell said. “I don’t know any competitor who’s happy about being the third best. We want to be No. 1.
“We try and not worry about the expectations outside of that,” Harrell said. “We try and focus on each week, each game. The first week (Aug. 30) is Jacksonville, so we’re worried about them and taking it one game at a time and the expectations we set for ourselves, as long as we continue to work hard, we’ll achieve them.”
It’s easy to understand the logic behind SLU’s elevated perch just behind No. 1 Eastern Washington and No. 2 North Dakota State, the three-time FCS national champion.
The Lions have 58 lettermen back, including 14 starters led by SLC Player of the Year Bryan Bennett, a senior quarterback.
Bennett passed for 3,165 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,046 yards and 16 touchdowns, and is one of 15 players to earn either national or conference preseason accolades.
SLU’s also experienced, with 25 seniors and in most cases solid in its two-deep depth chart with Saturday night’s first scrimmage expected to shine some light on the progression of the first two weeks of fall camp.
Moreover, the Lions’ talent level and depth were bolstered by several Football Bowl Subdivision transfers that have worked their way into the two-deep: strong safety Jordan Batiste (Tulane), strong safety JQ Sandolph (LSU), cornerback Derrick Raymond (LSU), safety Micah Eugene (LSU), offensive left tackle Aaron Reed (Southern Miss) and offensive right tackle Pierson Villarubia (Washington State).
“We’re an upper class team with a lot of veterans here so they should conduct their business right,” Roberts said. “We’re hoping it’s going to carry over to August 30 and roll throughout the season.”
SLU’s most publicized transfer of a year ago — Bennett — gives the Lions more than just a prolific passer with the ability to run the ball.
Bennett’s also been where SLU’s trying to currently navigate when Oregon, now a universally recognized as a top-10 program, took off during his three-year stay in Eugene.
Bennett was a redshirt freshman on Oregon’s national runner-up team that lost on a last-second field goal against Auburn. Over the next two years he played in 18 games where the Ducks registered back-to-back 12-win seasons with a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin and triumphed over Kansas State a year later in the Fiesta Bowl.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen what it takes to remain successful,” Bennett said. “It has to come down to what you do on a daily basis to continue to get better. We’ve got to work even harder. Now there’s a target on our back. No one’s going to sleep on us and we’re going to get everybody’s best game. We have to understand that and take it as a challenge.”