HAMMOND — The Southeastern Louisiana football team played six games last season decided by a touchdown or less. It won none.
Heading into his fifth season as coach, Mike Lucas has challenged his team to make the most of the big moments.
“Can we be a more mature football team with nine seniors this year than we were last year with 18 seniors?” Lucas said Saturday at Southeastern’s annual media day.
If the answer is yes, the Lions can put last year’s 2-9 hiccup behind and pick up where they left off in a breakthrough 2009 campaign.
Southeastern lost four games last year decided in the final five minutes, derailing high preseason hopes.
Lucas blamed the narrow setbacks, including four losses by seven combined points, on a combination of untimely penalties and costly turnovers.
“All of those things are a learning experience to prepare us for this season,” Lucas said.
The Lions return only 11 starters, but Lucas called this year’s team the most athletic Southeastern has had. He expects 11 transfers, either by way of junior colleges or other four-year schools, to be heavily involved. Several true freshmen may play, too.
“We had 23 freshmen last year and redshirted 20 of them,” Lucas said. “This year, I’m not going to say we’re going to redshirt that many guys.”
Picked to finish seventh in the eight-team Southland Conference, the Lions can look back two years for inspiration. Southeastern was picked last in the 2009 preseason poll, but broke through for a 6-5 finish and was part of the league title chase late in the year.
Junior Brian Young takes over for Tyler Beatty at quarterback after starting two games last season and playing in four others.
Ole Miss transfer Nathan Stanley, who started the Rebels’ season opener last year, and redshirt freshman Jordan Barnett could also contribute.
Senior receiver Simmie Yarborough returns as the school’s all-time leader with 168 catches and 27 receiving touchdowns and needs only 343 yards to become the career leader in receiving yards. Junior defensive end Devan Walker, a Catholic High graduate, joined Yarborough on the preseason All-Southland team after recording 35 tackles and four sacks as a sophomore.
And Lucas said he expects Southeastern to get a big boost from junior Robert Alford, who returns to his starting role at cornerback after missing the entire 2010 season with a shoulder injury.
Former Lutcher High School star Todd Washington, who made six starts at Memphis last year, will play the other corner.
“Having the ability at the corner spot to play some more man coverage will allow us to do some thing to stop the run with the safeties in the box,” Lucas said.
The key will be navigating an early season schedule that has Southeastern playing Tulane, Southern Miss and McNeese State on the road.
But after last year, the Lions shouldn’t have to look far for motivation.
“I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit here and make predictions,” Lucas said. “I know we have to play better against Tulane and get off to a good start. “We don’t have the schedule where we can ooze into anything. We’ve got to be ready to roll.”