HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana’s massive right senior offensive tackle Jonathan Braddock lights up at the possibility before tempering his enthusiasm.
With No. 14 SLU (6-3, 4-1) returning home to Strawberry Stadium for a 3 p.m. Southland Conference game Saturday with Houston Baptist (2-7, 1-5) it’s obvious Braddock would love nothing more than to atone for the Lions latest defeat.
Specifically, the manner in which SLU dropped out of sole possession of the league’s lead with a 27-17 road loss to Stephen F. Austin, a game where the Lions were limited to 128 rushing yards — the team’s second lowest output of the season.
“I would most definitely want to run the ball and set the tone early,” Braddock said of his preferred opening to Saturday’s game. “But you run the plays that are called and run them to perfection and it will work out. The offense needs to come together whether we start out throwing or running.”
The offensive line was expected to be among the pillars of this year’s SLU team where three starters — including Braddock — returned from a group that ranked second in the Southland Conference in rushing offense.
Guards D.J. Williams and Joe Graves also returned along with the arrival of Southern Mississippi junior transfer Aaron Reed, giving the Lions another formidable unit that’s actually averaged two yards more rushing (235.7) and ranks second again league wide.
Moreover, the Lions have overcome early-season issues with protection and lead the SLC in fewest sacks allowed with 10.
“I think we’ve got some great players up there,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said. “We’ve established a mentality that we’re going to be physical, we’re going to run the football and our guys have had some great accomplishments. There’s a lot of reasons to feel good about things.”
SLU has maintained a high-level of performance, ranking in the top four of most of the league’s offensive categories with the exception of passing offense.
The Lions have done so, though, with an offensive line that’s been in flux since the second week of the season because of injuries and projects to start their fourth different lineup against Houston Baptist.
“We haven’t been at full strength, even the ones that have been going haven’t been healthy,” Roberts said. “We’ve had a rollercoaster at times with shifting personnel inside. They’re all good players. We’ve had some banged up.”
For example Graves, a Covington native, began the season at center and started four games before moving to left guard for three weeks.
Graves is expected to anchor this week’s line at center for the third straight week with Braddock and Reed — the only two players to play their positions the entire season — along with junior left guard Josue Miranda and sophomore right guard Taylor Romero.
“Something was off last game, we weren’t clicking and meshing together,” Reed said. “It’s real important for us to get back on top, especially running the ball. That’s what we want to be known for and that’s being a physical o-line.”
Twice this season SLU has re-established new school benchmarks for rushing yardage and touchdowns in a game.
During a 63-7 thumping of Incarnate Word, the Lions gained a season-high 337 yards on the ground and produced a school-record 7 touchdowns. Two weeks later they broke the school mark with 484 rushing yards and scored 7 TDs again.
One of the constants during those games was a starting offensive line consisting of Reed, Graves, senior Ryan Cockerton at center, Williams at right guard and Braddock.
They actually played three games together before an injury to Cockerton forced Graves back to center, while Williams remains sidelined for a third consecutive games because of an NCAA compliance matter.
“I’m looking forward to us hopefully being healthy in the next three games where we can play that dominating style of football,” Roberts said. “That’s what we want to do and that’s to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage effectively. When we do we’re a pretty good football team.”