All the Southland Conference teams this year will likely still be chasing FCS power Sam Houston State, but Central Arkansas, Nicholls State, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana provide excellent depth in the title race.
Last year, Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas were the two particpants from the eleven school league to make the postseason. Each one a game before bowing out. Central Arkansas won its opening round game against Illinois State before losing to Eastern Washington in the second round while SHSU won is opening second round game before losing to eventual national champion James Madison in the quarterfinals.
The players this year will include Southland Player of the Year and national player of the year quarterback Jerimiah Briscoe, offensive player of the year wide receiver Yedidiah Louis, freshman of the year wide receiver Nathan Stewart, and defensive player of year in end P.J. Hall from Sam Houston State will all return to give the Bearkats a core that should be the undoubted favorites to not only win the Southland but also contend nationally.
The other ten teams also return some talent but will also need some newcomers to rise to become impact players.
In this column, I will highlight a player from each of the Southland teams that I believe will rise to become an impact player to have a breakout season in 2017. The players shown below are in alphabetical order by school.
Abilene Christian moves into a new on-campus stadium and also welcome new coach Adam Dorrel, who went 76-8 and won three Division II national titles in six seasons at Northwest Missouri State. While 20 starters return that played in the Wildcats’ final game, there are positions up for grabs and some players have changed positions under the new coaching staff.
Dorrel is inheriting a team that finished just 2-9 that caused his predecessor Ken Collums to be released.
Junior quarterback Dallas Sealey is coming off a banner season and will continue to have an excellent receiving corps. Sealey threw for 2,773 yards and 19 touchdowns with just five interceptions last year.
Senior outside linebacker Sam Denmark is one of the better defensive players in the conference and should be the leader on this side of the ball. Denmark is a two-time All-Southland performer already. But the Wildcat defense must improve overall after surrendering over 37 points per game.
Sophomore-to-be Adonis Davis performed well at cornerback during spring drills and looks like the breakout player the Wildcats need on defense. Last year, Davis started six games and recorded 23 tackles and an interception and looks to become a full time starter this year and produce even more.
Coming off an excellent season that included a second-place finish in the Southland and that playoff win, Central Arkansas should challenge again for a postseason bid. The Bears finished 2016 10-3 overall.
Quarterback Hayden Hildebrand and a stable of quality running backs will work behind an offensive line that has all five starters returning. But with outstanding wide receivers Desmond Smith and Jatavius gone, the Bears will need to find a couple breakout players to catch the ball.
The Bears defense was firm against the run last season but must replace the middle of its line as well as two starters in the secondary.
Junior college transfer Lester Wells looks to fill the gap at wide receiver. He will be a junior this fall in Conway and put up impressive numbers at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC. In 2015 and 2016 he accounted for 82 receptions for 1,152 yards in being named to the All-Conference teams each season.
Houston Baptist set a school record for wins and won its first Southland road game last season so the Huskies look like a team on the rise. HBU is in its firth year after starting its program in 2013 and finished with a best 4-7 overall mark. HBU should be a veteran squad with eight starters on offense and nine on defense return.
The big question mark on offense will be at the quarterback position as Tony Dawson was lost to graduation. The Huskies will be young at the position, likely going with either redshirt freshman Andrew Haidet or incoming freshman Bailey Zappe. As usual, a start-up program has to get better on the offensive line, but senior running backs B.J. Kelly (recovering from ankle injury) and Terrance Peters assist with the learning curve.
The defensive strength should be at linebacker with Garret Dolan returning to lead the way. He is actually the top returning tackler in the full FCS subdivision.
One breakout player might be JUCO transfer junior-to-be Johnavhon Graham, who played two seasons at Cisco (TX) Junior College. He recorded 50 tackles (27 solo), 6.5 sacks and one forced fumble in his sophomore season last year.
Incarnate Word has completed the transition so the Cardinals are now eligible for the Southland title and FCS playoffs. After finishing last year at 3-8 last year, that might be a too lofty goal. The Cardinals, however, did finish last year with two wins so there is some optimism in San Antonio. Head Coach Larry Kennan’s team returns a total of 15 starters including eight on defense, so the Cardinals should be a veteran team.
The offense must replace starting quarterback Trent Brittain, but backup Taylor Laird, a Kansas State transfer, is back as a senior. Senior wide receiver Jamari Gilbert should provide the Laird a venerable target. The bigger concern is running back, where injuries had the Cardinals down to their fifth-stringer to end last season.
The defense gave up over 37 points per game and loses leading tackler Josh Zellars but senior linebacker Quandre Washington should provide leadership on this side of the ball.
Sophomore running back Desmond Hite looks like the player to breakout in the Cardinals running game. As a freshman, he tallied a team second high 317 yards and two touchdowns.
Lamar will see a first time head Mike Schultz but has 37-years as an assistant, including most recently as the offensive coordinator at the Big 12’s Texas Christian. He takes over for the departed Ray Woodard after the Cardinals finished just 3-8. Lamar has only finished above .500 once since the 2010 program resurrection.
With All-America running back Kade Harrington gone, the Cardinals will need to develop a new ground gainer. Lamar did develop freshman quarterback Adam Morse last year so his sophomore season should be better yet. A veteran offensive line will help further his development this season.
While the defense is experienced at linebacker, the line has lost three of its four starters and the secondary will be without Brendan Langley, who was Lamar’s first NFL drafted player since 1990.
Texas A&M graduate transfer James White just might be the breakout player for Lamar. He rushed for 462 yards and seven touchdowns during his three seasons with the Aggies. Ironically, his best game as an Aggie was when he carried the ball 11 times for 62 yards against Lamar as a freshman.
After gaining the 2015 Southland championship, McNeese State slumped to just 6-5 in Lance Guidry’s first season. Guidry has reclaimed the defensive coordinator’s duties where he was prior to gaining the head job.
Despite losing defensive tackle Isaiah Golden, the defensive line is one of the team’s strengths with Jammerio Gross-Whitaker and Chris Livings back. With Guidry in charge of this side of the ball, the team will try to get back to a championship level (the defense ranked 11th in the FCS two years ago).
Last year, FBS Arkansas State transfer quarterback James Tabary turned the Cowboys into much more of a passing attack. Tabary threw for over 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. The running game has two capable backs returning in Ryan Ross and Justin Pratt although Ross broke his ankle in the Cowboy spring game but should be back healthy this fall. The offensive line, however, might be the area of most concern on this side of the ball.
Helping out the offensive line this year might be a breakout graduate transfer in center Andy Dodd. He comes to Lake Charles from the SEC’s Louisiana State after starting one game last year for the Tigers. He sat behind LSU All-American Ethan Poci.
The SLC dark horse candidate this year just might be Nicholls State. The Colonels finished 2016 just 5-6 but Nicholls just about beat SEC powerhouse Georgia and the team returns 16 starters (nine on defense) in Coach Tim Rebowe’s third year in Thibodaux.
Quarterback Chase Fourcade had a breakout season as a freshman and is surrounded by excellent, young talent in the skills positions, although top wide receiver C.J. Bates is gone.
The defense, which had a freshman defensive tackle Sully Laiche breakout to the All-SLC squad only needs to replace two starters in the secondary.
Also, junior college transfer Lorran Fonseca was brought in to improve the kicking game, who will likely be the Colonels breakout performer this year. Nicholls lost four of its six games by just seven or less so having a consistent kicker just might put them over the edge. Fonseca will be a junior this year after transferring from Contra Costa (CA) Junior College. He was rated as a five-star kicker, ranking No. 11 nationally in the class of 2017 by Chris Sailer Kicking Acadamy. He was also the 2016 Vegas XXVIII Junior College Field Goal Champion and Last Man Standing Field Goal Champion.
Once a top Southland contender, Northwestern State only earned a Division II win over Kentucky Wesleyan in a forgettable 2016 season, so Coach Jay Thomas needs to get his program turned around in his fifth season. Two changes included bringing back alum Brad Laird as the defensive coordinator and promoting quarterbacks coach Kyle Manley to offensive coordinator. The Demons have eight starters back on offense and seven on defense, and 36 returnees made at least one start last season so the Demons should have a veteran group in 2017.
Senior quarterback J.D. Almond returns with the most experience and four of the five offensive line in front of him return.
The Demon defense has a scheme that centers around the secondary which should be headed by Austin Balthazor and Isaac Warren. Senior defensive end Dannie Harmon also should provide leadership in the front.
The Demons breakout performer just may be Marquisian Chapman, a junior wide receiver that comes to Natchitoches from Northwest Mississippi CC. Chapman highlighted the Northwestern State spring game by opening the game with a 60-yard touchdown. At Northwest Mississippi, he tallied 1,550 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns in two seasons and was named to the all-conference team a year ago.
The reigning Southland champions of Sam Houston State remains one of the top teams in the FCS, but the way the Bearkats’ season ended – getting crushed 65-7 by eventual national champion James Madison in the quarterfinals left a bad taste in the Bearkats’ mouth. That loss showed that SHSU needs a more physical style really on both sides of the ball to be at the top.
The defense returns only five starters, although leader tackler linebacker Justin Johnson and P.J. Hall are back to lead the Bearkats. Briscoe passed for an all-time FCS best 57 touchdowns and had a school record of 4,602 yards passing.
The offense could be the best in all of FCS as quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe leads the way and he has all his favorite weapons back.
The offensive attack could be even stronger this year with a breakout performer at tight end in Josh Moore. He comes to Huntsville from FBS Missouri where he actually played defensive end for the Tigers. Coming out of Olathe (KS) North High in the 2015 recruiting cycle, he was recruited as both a strong-side defensive end and tight end. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Moore, a former three-star recruit, held offers Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Oklahoma, among others, before signing with Missouri in that class.
Southeastern Louisiana bounced back from a down 2015 season (4-7), finishing in third place and narrowly missed the playoffs with a 7-4 record.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions need to replace 2016 senior quarterbacks Justin Alo and D’Shaie Landor. Junior returner Donovan Isom and sophomore transfer Lorenzo Nunez are the top candidates to win the job under center. A trio of All-Southland Conference performers return on the offensive side of the ball in junior running back Julius Maracalin (747 yards, 8 TD in 2016), senior wide receiver Juwan Dickey (42 catches, 768 yards, 7 TD) and senior offensive lineman Travis Romero.
Like the offense, the defense returns six starters. Three All-Southland Conference newcomers who were immediate impact players in their respective debut seasons in Hammond a year ago return to lead the defense. Senior linebacker Sione Teuhema (8.5 TFL, 4 sacks), senior defensive back Max Lyons (73 tackles) and senior defensive back Torrance Mosley (64 tackles, 7 PBU) will be the team leaders.
The breakout player on the Lions could be JUCO transfer defensive end Imani Mitchell, who comes from East Los Angles College and will be a junior this year. He finished with 38 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss at East Los Angeles College in being named a second team All-Metro selection.
Stephen F. Austin is coming off a 5-6 campaign but return 37 total letter winners and 17 starters from a year ago. That total includes nine on the offensive side of the ball, seven on defense and one on special teams.
The Lumberjacks lose Zach Conque at quarterback but FBS TCU transfer Foster Sawyer will likely get the nod as the SFA signal caller this year. The offense has a chance to be explosive with the likes of wide receiver Tamrick Pace and running back Loren Easly returning.
The Lumberjacks’ defense is moving to a different scheme under their new coordinator, Jeff Byrd, who arrived from UT Martin. How the ‘Jacks improve will overall will likely be on this side of the ball. SFA ranked 10th in the conference in total defense and last in scoring defense in 2016.
The breakout performer for the Lumberjacks will likely be aforementioned junior quarterback Sawyer. At TCU, he playing in 12 games with two starts for the Horned Frogs last year. He completed 37-of-82 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns during his time in Fort Worth.