HAMMOND — Third-year Southeastern Louisiana football coach Ron Roberts doesn’t belabor the point when it comes to this year’s defense.
“I think this group has a special chance to be a special defense,” Roberts said. “They can be tops in the country. They’ve got to do the things that are going to separate them from the rest of the pack.”
That unit was Southland Conference’s best a year ago in three of the league’s four major categories, but much like the current state of the program, they want to further distinguish themselves on a national level.
The first in a season’s worth of challenges begin Saturday when No. 3 Southeastern opens the 2014 season at Strawberry Stadium against Jacksonville at 7 p.m.
“We’ve got a veteran group of guys and some transfers that have come in,” SLU senior middle linebacker Drew Misita. “I feel like there’s been some talk about it, but I feel we’ve got to prove it the first game and I think we can prove it. We’ve worked hard in the offseason.
“We have to stay humble and take it play by play and have fun doing it.”
Roberts tried to push his defense over the course of August’s grind through fall camp in order to prepare them for another chase at the SLC championship and deep postseason run.
The Lions return six starters from the SLC’s top unit in both scoring (22.7) and total defense (386.0) with junior cornerback Harlan Miller a first team All-SLC selection and senior linebacker Isiah Corbett and senior tackle Jacob Newman both second-team selections.
“We have 19-20 guys back that played significant snaps last year,” Roberts said. “We added some guys that makes them more talented, so I think we have a better defense than we did last year. We’ve got to show it on Saturday.”
When it comes to first-game tests Jacksonville may not leap off SLU’s schedule, but with eight starters returning from a 5-6 team, the Dolphins’ up-tempo offense isn’t one to take lightly.
Former Florida All-American quarterback Kerwin Bell begins his eighth season at Jacksonville, a non-scholarship Football Championship Subdivision program, and brings in an offense that was third nationally in scoring (41.8) and fifth in total offense (522.7).
“It’s going to be a big challenge but our kids are up for it,” said Bell, 48-31 at the school. “We feel like we’ve got an offense that can hopefully score some points, and we feel we’re a lot better on defense than we’ve been. We’ll go there, play our hardest and try and make a game of it.”
Bell’s son, 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior Kade, led the Pioneer Football League in total offense with 312 yards per game. He completed 55 percent of his passes (158 of 237) for 2,397 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Three of Jacksonville’s four wide receivers are seniors with 6-3, 210-pounder Andrew Robustelli, who earned Walter Camp All-American honors, topping the Dolphins with 51 catches for 1,063 yards and 11 TDs.
“This is going to be one of the better teams we’ve ever played,” Bell said. “They’re very loaded on both sides of the ball. It’s going to take a great effort for us to try and stay in the game as much as we can.”
Replacing its two top tacklers from last season — Cqulin Hubert (SLC Defensive Player of Year) and Theo Alexander — will fall in part on the shoulders of Misita, a 6-1, 245-pounder who produced 78 tackles, eight stops behind the line of scrimmage and three quarterback hurries.
Corbett added 58 tackles and, along with Newman, tied for team-high honors with seven sacks apiece. Miller and senior safety Marice Sutton each had four interceptions to pace the conference.
“Our guys have expectations,” Roberts said. “They know what they want.
“Our goals are set, and it’s to try and be one of the best defenses in this conference and in the country. If you’re going to do that, you have to welcome the opportunity when people challenge you.”