Before Bryan Bennett came to Southeastern Louisiana, football’s arrival was just another indication of the changing seasons.
Before 2013, the Lions had just two winning campaigns to their name in the 10 years since football returned to Hammond in 2003. SLU won three games or fewer four times in that span.
But everything changed last fall when the former Oregon backup quarterback landed the Lions’ starting job. Bennett completed 215 of 354 passes for 3,165 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he added 1,046 yards and 16 scores on the ground as the Lions averaged 38.4 points per game.
Suddenly, SLU was back on the map in the Southland Conference, finishing 11-3 and winning the outright conference crown — its first since 1961. In their first trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the Lions topped Southland rival Sam Houston State 30-29 before falling 20-17 to New Hampshire in the quarterfinals.
Now with a full year under his belt, Bennett will enter his senior season looking for more. Wednesday’s Southland media day in Lake Charles is the first step toward another successful season.
“I thought (Bennett) really had a great spring, and I think he’s so much more comfortable with the offense,” coach Ron Roberts said. “The mental part of the game has kind of slowed down for him. He’s worked extremely hard, and he’s bigger and stronger and faster, but the biggest part is the mental aspect of it.”
Camp opens Aug. 3. When it does, Roberts said he expects Bennett to improve as a leader now that he’s more comfortable with the offense.
“(Bennett has) been vocal since the day he showed up,” he said. “He probably is getting a little more vocal as he gets more comfortable in that role. Not just because he’s a great player, but because of his work ethic; the kids respect him tremendously. He’s got this charisma about him that makes people want to follow him.”
At receiver, junior Jeff Smiley returns after making 57 receptions for 744 yards and six touchdowns in 2013. Overall, four of the six wideouts who caught 10 or more passes last season are in line to be on the field for the Lions, all of whom are upperclassmen.
That kind of leadership in the passing game, plus the impact of junior running backs Rasheed Harrell and Xavier Roberson, could lead to SLU’s most dominant offensive attack ever.
And that could mean 2014 is SLU’s best shot at the FCS crown.
“It’s not national-title-or-bust because I think you’re setting yourself up for failure if you do that,” Roberts said. “We’ve just got to make sure we keep our goals in sight. Winning the Southland Conference is first, and that needs to be it.”