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SOUTHLAND MEDIA DAY: Colonels embraced, learn from playoff game

Editor’s note: This article provides an encapsulated look at each Southland Conference football program except for Lamar going into the 2018 season. A preview for Lamar was printed in Friday’s edition.

HOUSTON — The last time Nicholls State had made the NCAA Division I playoffs before 2017 was 2005.

In fact, the Colonels had suffered through nine straight losing seasons. So Tim Rebowe had plenty on his hands in trying to turn around the program when he took over three seasons ago.

Now, Nicholls — which finished third in the Southland — is predicted to finish second in the Southland Conference only behind national semifinalist Sam Houston State. The Colonels, who were 8-4, and 7-2 in the Southland a year ago, have playoff experience to draw from this time, but one that ended in heartbreaking fashion in Thibodaux, Louisiana.

“The playoff game was a microcosm of our season,” Rebowe said, reflecting on South Dakota’s 38-31 win. “We won eight games, and a lot of them were close. We preach about playing to the last whistle. Turnovers are a part of the game, and you want to be on the plus-end of the turnover column. That game, we didn’t.”

Nicholls lost one of two fumbles, and quarterback Chase Fourcade — a first-team preseason All-Southland pick for 2018 — tossed three interceptions. South Dakota had only one turnover.

Nicholls made noise well before the postseason appearance in nonconference play the past two years. The Colonels nearly toppled then No. 9 Georgia 26-24 in the 2016 season opener and pushed a 2017 Texas A&M team already shaken from blowing a big lead in a loss at UCLA before the Aggies took a 24-14 victory.

This season, Nicholls will open at Kansas at 6 p.m. Sept. 1, then visit Tulane and begin Southland play at McNeese State before hosting Sam Houston State.

“Our guys always want to prove they can play with the big boys,” Rebowe said. “I like the attitude they can win big games. If you can have depth on both the offense and defensive lines, that’s where you have a chance to win.”

 

Abilene Christian

Head coach: Adam Dorrel (second year, 2-9 record) | 2017 record: 2-9 (2-7 Southland, eighth place) | First game: at Baylor, 7 p.m. Sept. 1

Adam Dorrel returns 12 starters from last year, his first at Abilene after winning three NCAA Division II titles in six seasons helming Northwest Missouri State.

He also redshirted every true freshman in 2017.

“When you watch us play … I think it’ll be apparent our talent is getting better,” Dorrel said.

The game environment at ACU’s Wildcat Stadium apparently has.

The stadium, the first on-campus venue for the program since 1942, opened last season to the tune of a sellout crowd of 12,000 who saw ACU beat Houston Baptist 24-3.

“When we built that stadium and you saw the people in the stadium, I felt this was way better,” defensive tackle Dante Hibbert said. “We felt like we were a part of a Division I program. … A lot of people would come to me and say they had never seen a game until last year.”

 

Central Arkansas

Head coach: Nathan Brown (first year) | 2017 record: 10-2 (9-0 Southland, champion, lost to New Hampshire 21-15 in NCAA second round) | First game: at Tulsa, 6 p.m. Sept. 1

One of five new head coaches in the Southland this year, Nathan Brown, 32, said he’s been preparing for the opportunity since 2009, the year he graduated from UCA.

“I didn’t want to be the convenient choice to keep things moving. I wanted to be the right choice,” the former Bears quarterback and offensive coordinator said.

In preparing for the gig, Brown dug into his book of connections and made former Abilene Christian head coach Ken Collums his new o-coordinator. Collums, who was fired after the 2016 season after going 24-32 in five seasons, is another former quarterback who led UCA to the 1991 NAIA championship as a freshman and will be offensive coordinator for the second time in Conway (2002-04).

“To have a guy who’s been through the rigors of the conference, Ken has been invaluable,” Brown said.

 

Houston Baptist

Head coach: Vic Shealy (seventh year, 12-39 record) | 2017 record: 1-10 (0-9 Southland, 11th place) | First game: Home vs. Southwest Baptist, 6 p.m. Sept. 1

The Huskies have yet to record a winning season in their seventh year of football, and they’ll have to attempt it coming off a difficult offseason.

On May 6, linebacker Garrett Dolan, 23, was found dead in the courtyard of a Midtown Houston apartment complex, according to multiple reports. The Barbers Hill graduate was to receive his degree May 12.

One of the first 13 recruits when HBU launched the football program, Dolan became a three-time captain and won several All-American honors. Vic Shealy said Thursday that Dolan “was a coach’s dream.”

“I think as a young program, it’s important to have young men who inspire others to be better,” Shealy said.

In January HBU was also placed on two-year probation, in addition to other recruiting sanctions the NCAA levied, as a result of overseeing an impermissible student-host program, providing the hosts with meals and using an impermissible recruiter during official visits. Houston Baptist may still compete for championships.

 

Incarnate Word

Head coach: Eric Morris (first year) | 2017 record: 1-10 (1-7 Southland, ninth place) | First game: at New Mexico, Sept. 1, time TBA

Eric Morris readily admits he uses his phone often to gain advice from other coaches he’s worked under.

It’s quite a roster: Morris, 32, was most recently offensive coordinator for Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, inside receivers coach for Mike Leach at Washington State and offensive graduate assistant and quality control assistant for Kevin Sumlin at the University of Houston. Morris was a wide receiver at Texas Tech.

Junior Sean Brophy returns after throwing for 1,277 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games at UIW, but he’s part of a quarterback race with three others, Morris said.

 

McNeese State

Head coach: Lance Guidry (third year, 15-7 record) | 2017 record: 9-2 (7-2 Southland, fourth place) | First game: at Northern Colorado, 3 p.m. Sept. 1

If the Cowboys did enough to make the NCAA Division I playoffs last year, the playoff committee didn’t think so.

McNeese State failed to become the fourth Southland representative in the postseason after seeing a three-game improvement and tying Nicholls State for third place in the conference. Nicholls beat McNeese 37-35 in the season opener.

“We might have had a feeling of no closure after last season, but all it’s done is give us the motivation this offseason,” coach Lance Guidry said. The Cowboys also lost to UCA 47-17 and did not have to play eventual national semifinalist Sam Houston State.

“Our guys were disappointed, but they were more disappointed we didn’t win conference,” Guidry said. “We still had a chance if we went in there and beat UCA. We didn’t play real well.

“It is what it is. We moved past that. We’ll always try to win a conference championship like we always try to. We try to control our own destiny.”

Quarterback James Tabary is the sixth all-time leading passer, but Guidry reported sophomore Cody Orgeron, son of LSU coach Ed Orgeron, has made “a big push” for Tabary’s job. Nederland redshirt junior linebacker Sage Seay is coming back after suffering an injury that limited him to two games in 2017.

McNeese State also replaced a nine-year-old turf surface with a field similar to that at AT&T Stadium in Arlington and The Star in Frisco, the Dallas Cowboys’ game-day arena and practice facility, respectively.

 

Northwestern State

Head coach: Brad Laird (first year) | 2017 record: 4-7 (4-5 Southland, tied for sixth place) | First game: at Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30

Brad Laird is being thrown into a big fire.

His first game as the Demons’ head coach will be Jimbo Fisher’s first as Texas A&M head coach. SEC Network will broadcast the season opener between the Demons and Aggies.

Defensive end Zak Krolczyk, who had five sacks last season said Laird, a former Demons quarterback, has not changed as a person from being defensive coordinator. The past two seasons marked Laird’s third stint in that position at his alma mater, with a stop at Stephen F. Austin and several high schools along the way.

“He’s the same dude who does all he can and goes all out for his players.”

Among those who could make a big impact in Laird’s defense is true junior Christian Bluiett, a nose tackle who graduated from West Brook in 2016. Bluiett’s brother Caleb is a former standout at the University of Texas.

Recent Memorial graduate Jomard Valsin is hoping to break into the starting lineup as a “Buck” defender, or one who can interchange between the defensive line and linebacker. Valsin is The News’ 2017 Defensive Player of the Year.

 

Sam Houston State

Head coach: K.C. Keeler (fourth year, 46-12) | 2017 season: 12-2 (8-1 Southland, second place, lost to North Dakota State 55-13 in NCAA semifinal) | First game: Home vs. Prairie View, Sept. 8, time TBA

The Bearkats return 14 starters — seven on each side of the ball — and are favored to win the Southland.

The prediction befits a program that has won more games than any other in Division I over the past four years — except for Alabama, Clemson and North Dakota State.

“I think our kids understand when you are in our culture, it’s about certain expectations,” Keeler said. “There’s accountability when things aren’t going our way, we believe we can get the ship righted.”

While they no longer have two-time national player of the year Jeremiah Briscoe manning the controls at quarterback, Davion Davis and Nathan Stewart return as All-America wide receivers.

“I think we’re going to be a little bit different,” Keeler said. “I think we’re going to be a little bit more physical team on offense, probably have a little more ability to run the ball at you. … I think we’re going to be a little more physical on the defensive line.”

 

Southeastern Louisiana

Head coach: Frank Scelfo (first year) | 2017 season: 6-5 (6-3 Southland, fifth place) | First game: at La.-Monroe, 7 p.m. Aug. 30

Frank Scelfo might have felt right at home at the Hilton Houston Post Oak on Thursday.

The University of Houston is where his brother Chris now coaches the offensive line. Chris was head coach at Tulane from 1998-2006, coaching the Liberty Bowl win instead of just-hired Clemson coach Tommy Bowden to complete an unbeaten season.

“I was with him for eight years at Tulane … so I was able to see a lot of things and be able to be put in positions I’m in now to make a lot of decisions,” said Frank Scelfo, whose father is also a head coach.

He replaced Ron Roberts, who is now defensive coordinator at Louisiana.

 

Stephen F. Austin

Head coach: Jeff Byrd (interim, first year) | 2017 record: 4-7 (4-5 in Southland, tied for sixth place) | First game: at Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 1

Jeff Byrd is the only coach in the Southland with an interim tag.

That is because Clint Conque has been suspended by the Nacogdoches school since June 18, pending an investigation into an alleged violation of university policy. Byrd remains the Lumberjacks’ defensive coordinator.

“We addressed the adversity that happened in the family,” Byrd said without mentioning Conque or the suspension. “When that happens, you don’t push people away. You draw them closer. I think we drew the family closer.”

Conque has a 21-25 overall record with the Lumberjacks after a more successful run leading Central Arkansas, where former player Nathan Brown is now head coach. SFA reached the Division I playoffs in 2014, Conque’s first season.

Byrd announced Nederland native Kevin Barbay, who was most recently director of player development at Florida, will become the offensive coordinator. Barbay was hired as quarterbacks coach in March.

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

 

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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