HAMMOND — Given the amount of preseason hype that’s propelled Southeastern Louisiana to new heights, there was only one plausible way to open the 2014 season.
SLU will kick off a season filled with great anticipation from the comforts of home, hosting Jacksonville University at 7 p.m. Saturday at Strawberry Stadium.
“I think it’s huge,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said Tuesday during his weekly media luncheon. “The excitement’s so high in the community and with the alumni. You want to start this thing off right, start it off with a bang in Strawberry Stadium.
“The environment’s great in that place and you want to get it started early,” Roberts said. “Our guys feed off that energy and excitement. The better environment you create, the better it makes for a great 2014 and helps us down the road.”
For the second straight year SLU embarks on a new season with a home game, after dismantling Southeast Missouri 45-7 to set a 2013 campaign in motion that resulted in an 11-3 record and Southland Conference championship.
Before that, the Lions hadn’t played at home in the first week since the 2009 season and for the first time since that season they will also have six home games.
SLU hosts Southern Utah at 7 p.m. Sept. 6, goes on the road for three straight weeks, then is back at Strawberry Stadium for its SLC home opener Oct. 4 against Northwestern State.
“It means the world to us as a football team to have your home crowd behind you,” SLU senior right offensive tackle Jonathan Braddock said. “I feel like I can play against anybody there when the stadium’s packed and rocking. It makes it easier because of the atmosphere. All we have to do is execute the plan set by the coaches.”
Roberts, 16-9 in two seasons at SLU, conceded game week couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Nearly a month after an arduous and competitive fall camp for a veteran team, the Lions are ready to execute their high-scoring offense and test a talent-laden defense against someone other than themselves.
“I know our players are tired of hitting each other,” Roberts said. “They’re looking forward to getting an opponent in here and just get back in Strawberry Stadium and in front of the fans, the electrifying atmosphere and one of the great Saturdays in college football. Going into the game, I don’t expect us to play perfect. I know we’ll have some first game mistakes but I think we’ll play well and look forward to seeing us set the bar for 2014.”
Jacksonville, which competes in the FCS’ Pioneer League, is trying to rebound after its first losing season (5-6) in six years.
Former Florida All-American quarterback Kerwin Bell begins his eighth season with the Dolphins, who feature a high-powered offense that returns eight starters from a team that averaged 41.8 points and 522.7 yards per game.
“They’re a veteran group on the offensive side of the ball,” Roberts said. “I expect them to spread it out and try and throw the ball a little bit.”
Roberts said his club, which returns 58 lettermen, made it through August’s unrelenting heat relatively unscathed injury-wise.
Senior offensive tackle D.J. Williams (6-foot-6, 310 pounds) switched from the right to left side because of a hamstring injury last week to projected starter Aaron Reed.
Reed, a transfer from Southern Miss, is expected back at practice Tuesday, and, depending on his effectiveness, will either reclaim his starting spot at left tackle or play in a reserve role. Sophomore Preston Villarubia, a Washington State transfer, has swapped sides to right tackle and is backing up Braddock.
“We have six guys that have started on offensive line,” Roberts said. “We feel we’re fortunate to have a veteran group there.”
Roberts said LSU transfer Derrick Raymond will start at left cornerback and will split time with junior Denzel Thompson. … Wide receiver Dylan Bossier of Teurlings Catholic-Lafayette left UL-Lafayette’s program during the fall and transferred to SLU last week and is expected to be one of 10 receivers the Lions will play Saturday. … Sophomore defensive lineman Taylor Cochran of St. Charles Catholic is out four to five weeks with a bulging disc in his back, Roberts said.