HAMMOND — Junior college wide receiver William French was well on his way to fitting into Southeastern Louisiana’s offense, showing the ability to become the team’s second or third receiving option.
Two weeks after the Lions lost their most veteran playmakers in consecutive games — leading receiver Jeff Smiley and top rusher/return specialist Xavier Roberson — French finds himself propelled into a role of leadership and productivity.
“My part was, when they couldn’t make plays or if other teams doubled-teamed them, it was my turn to step in and make a play when the ball came to me,” French said. “I’m probably going to get more touches. I’ll probably get more in the sweeps without Jeff, which are things he was doing great.”
The wide receiver position, which is heavily utilized in Southeastern’s running game, has been hit the hardest this season for the Lions (3-3, 2-2 Southland Conference), who travel to Houston Baptist (2-5, 0-4) for a 7 p.m. Saturday game.
The defense hasn’t been without its casualties as well, having lost senior linebacker T.J. West for the year in a season-opening 34-20 over Northwestern State.
“We knew coming in we would need everybody to play and everybody be on board,” SLU junior linebacker Tré Bennett said. “With the injuries, you have to be ready when your number’s called.”
French and Bennett are just two players SLU’s counting on to become leaders within their own respective position group, develop their expanded roles and generate positive results for a team at a crossroads.
Bennett, a midterm signee from Holmes (Miss.) Community College, actually beat out West for team’s starting spot at left outside linebacker, where he’s fifth in tackles with 23. He has one sack and provided the Lions a 7-0 lead in last week’s 28-27 loss to Stephen F. Austin with a 49-yard fumble return.
Where the loss of West, who played in 14 career games, has affected the Lions was in their depth behind Bennett, forcing him to play more snaps ahead of reserve Demarayeh Lane, a junior college signee.
SLU has not started the same combination of linemen and linebackers in consecutive games this season.
“We’ve had a number of guys in and out,” Bennett said. “We have depth where people can just step in and contribute right away.”
The wide receiver position has long been regarded as SLU’s deepest part of the team.
Having lost Smiley and Roberson — both of whom rank highly on the school’s career receiving and kick-return lists — is starting to test that theory with the Lions losing 30 percent their rushing production and 26 of the receiving output.
French has caught at least one pass in SLU’s last five games and is now the team’s leader with 11 catches for 139 yards. He also has 10 carries for 58 yards and has replaced Roberson on kickoff returns with an 18.8-yard average.
The Lions are also looking for help from junior college transfer Brandon Acker (10 catches, 124 yards), UL-Lafayette transfer Dylan Bossier (eight catches, 179 yards, one TD), Byron Johnson of Zachary (five catches, 133 yards, one TD) and Southern Mississippi transfer Chris Briggs (five catches, 60 yards, one TD).
“It’s a big setback, but as a team, we’ve got to keep each other up, motivate each other to make plays those guys were making,” French said. “We’ve got a great receiving corps. We have to step up as well as other people.”