In its first season under coach Ron Roberts, the Southeastern Louisiana football team made strides toward becoming a consistent competitor in the Southland Conference.
The Lions were 5-2 in league play — recording five conference wins for the first time since 1978, when they were in the Division II Gulf South Conference — and posted their best finish in the Southland since rejoining in 2005.
Roberts is hoping to carry some of that momentum to 2013 when Southeastern opens its spring season Monday.
“I really want to see our competitive level jump,” he said. “We can take a huge step forward in spring practice. By the time we’re done with this thing, we need to be ready to go.”
The good news for Roberts is that the Lions will return 17 starters from last season while graduating 17 seniors.
Southeastern signed a 24-man recruiting class to help fill the void and added 12 mid-year signees from Football Bowl Subdivision schools or junior colleges.
“We’re expecting all 12 of those guys to push for starting jobs,” Roberts said.
One of the biggest holes to fill is at quarterback. Graduating senior Nathan Stanley played in all 11 games in 2012, chalking up 1,952 yards and nine touchdowns with nine interceptions.
Southern returns two backups from last season, including junior Jordan Barnett and redshirt sophomore Brian Ensminger. Barnett saw limited action in two games in 2012, completing both passes he attempted for 45 yards.
Also competing for the starting position under center will be Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett. An Encino, Calif., native, Bennett played two seasons for the Ducks, recording 369 passing yards and six touchdowns in 2011 and 211 yards with three TDs and three interceptions last year.
Bennett, who was stuck in a reserve role behind freshman standout Marcus Mariota at Oregon, will be able to play immediately and have two years of eligibility remaining.
“(Bennett) can come in and compete right away for a starting job,” Roberts said. “Jordan Barnett is also here. He’s been here for two years, and we have a lot of confidence in him. He’s got a lot of ability, and he’s done a great job in the past. ... I expect it to be a very competitive race at quarterback.”
Roberts also has the daunting task of replacing All-America defensive back Robert Alford. The Hammond native tallied 39 tackles, five for loss, on the season while tying for the league lead with four interceptions.
The 6-foot, 185-pounder received an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine this weekend, and Roberts said he plans on replacing his former senior with more seniors.
“If you’re going to be successful, your seniors have got to have the best year of their career,” he said. “Last year, we had three of them really step to the plate and have really great careers.”
The Lions boast 22 rising seniors, giving them the luxury of having experienced players who know the playbook heading into spring.
Last season, Roberts said the coaching staff spent a large chunk of practice time teaching philosophies and planning. With a full year under his belt now, he can focus on individual and team training.
“We’re at a different stage than we were last year,” Roberts said. “The thing we want out of our spring now is a competitive battle.”