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SOUTHLAND MEDIA DAY: New SFA coach building first before eyeing national title

HOUSTON — Colby Carthel’s got jokes.

One of the Southland Conference’s newest head football coaches — McNeese State’s Sterlin Gilbert is the other recent hire — proved to be a hit during Thursday’s Media Day activities at the Hilton Houston Post Oak by keeping it real and making the media corps laugh in the process.

He might not be laughing when the Lumberjacks, who finished 2-8 and 2-7 in the Southland last year (10th place), begin the 2019 season at Baylor on Saturday, Aug. 31.

“That’s one of the things our AD didn’t tell me: You open the season against Baylor,” Carthel said. “And it gets better: We’ve played them five times and haven’t scored on them.”

Well, Aug. 31 will actually be the fifth time and first since Baylor won 48-0 during Robert Griffin III’s 2011 Heisman Trophy campaign.

“My wife is due Sept. 13, one day before the game at Southern Utah,” said Carthel, who along with wife Sarah has two sons. “Maybe my wife will deliver Aug. 31, and then I get to skip Baylor.”

Carthel, whose father Don coached West Texas A&M from 2005-12, is just two seasons removed from leading Texas A&M-Commerce to the NCAA Division II championship, something Abilene Christian’s Adam Dorrel achieved three times at Northwest Missouri State. But he gave his honest opinion about the outcome of the upcoming season when talking with his new team.

“I’m honest with my players. I told them … we’re not going to win the national championship,” Carthel said. “It’s not going to happen. We don’t have the depth.”

The closest Carthel has come to the Division I championship trophy already was at Media Day, when the award was on display just outside the ballroom. The Southland is the host conference for the national championship game, which is contested every January in Frisco, where the conference is based.

Senior quarterback Jake Blumrick made the trip to Media Day, although he is recovering from his second back surgery in five weeks.

“I’m still doing rehab and trying to get back. If not, it’s just one of those things my body is telling me to step back,” Blumrick said.

While depth may be an issue, but the Lumberjacks return a combined 18 starters on both sides of the ball from Jeff Byrd’s 2018 squad.

And, yes, Carthel kept it real about Byrd’s situation last year. Byrd was interim coach after Clint Conque was suspended and later resigned amid an investigation into a violation of university policy.

“I just want to thank Jeff Byrd for the job he did following a very embarrassing situation,” Carthel said, adding Byrd “did right by the kids.”

If Carthel feels any pressure in trying to replicate his success in Commerce, he sure didn’t show it.

“Eric Morris, that’s my least favorite coach in the league,” Carthel joked about the second-year Incarnate Word coach. “You ask me why? That sucker went and won the conference one year in the league. Now everyone looks at that and says, ‘Hey, Incarnate Word won it in one year. You can too.’”

SFA visits Lamar’s homecoming on Sept. 28 for a 6 p.m. kickoff, one week before ACU visists the Cardinals.

 

ABILENE CHRISTIAN

Head coach: Adam Dorrel (third year, 8-14) | 2018 record: 2-9, 6-5 Southland, tied for fourth | First game: at North Texas, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 31 | at Lamar: 6 p.m. Oct. 5 in Beaumont

Dorrel has set a foundation in Abilene, and it’s helped the Wildcats go from 2-9 to 6-5.

“Improving our talent level; that’s gotten better,” Dorrel said, asked what was the x-factor in the Wildcats’ resurgence. “We’re always trying to compare ourselves to the top teams at the FCS level. You look at what they’ve done. For us, that gives us help knowing that we can keep improving if we do the things we’ve been doing.”

Dorrel was complementary of the work Southland co-champs Incarnate Word and Nicholls State, as well as Lamar, did in getting to the NCAA Division I playoffs last November. He added Lamar’s physicality on the defensive line set Mike Schultz’s team apart from others in the Southland.

 

CENTRAL ARKANSAS

Head coach: Nathan Brown (second year, 6-5) | 2018 record: 6-5, 5-4 Southland, tied for third | First game: at Western Kentucky, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 29 | at Lamar: 3 p.m. Nov. 2

A promising season for the Bears went sour in three games.

Defending its Southland title from 2017, UCA had won five of six games and was nationally ranked before McNeese State edged the Bears 23-21. The next week, Lamar quarterback Jordan Hoy ran for 225 yards in a 38-24 win in Conway.

“We were in every game we played in,” Brown said. “If you look at it … if you break it down to one or two possessions in the fourth quarter, we had a chance to win it.”

Brown had to reach down to a third-string quarterback, redshirt freshman Luke Hales, in the fourth game of the season after redshirt freshman Breylin Smith broke his ankle. Both quarterbacks are competing for the starting role again.

“You are usually as good as your quarterback,” Brown said. “That usually goes all the way from NFL to college and high school. But our expectations didn’t change.”

UCA plays four of first five games on the road against Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, Hawaii and Nicholls State. Abilene Christian will visit UCA in Week 3.

 

HOUSTON BAPTIST

Head coach: Vic Shealy (sixth year, 10-45) | 2018 record: 1-10, 0-9 Southland, 11th place | First game: at UTEP, 7 p.m. Aug. 31 | Home vs. Lamar: 2 p.m. Nov. 16

Vic Shealy is the longest tenured coach in the Southland by hiring date, hired on April 9, 2012. His first official season was 2014, one season after K.C. Keeler began his run at SHSU.

While the Huskies haven’t posted big win totals since launching their football program, senior Andre Walker has posted a number more impressive than the 11.5 sacks that make him the school’s all-time leader in that category. The molecular biology major holds a 3.8 grade-point average.

“Defnitely a lot of coffee,” Walker said. “Having a strict schedule and planning ahead of time. … Just knowing it will pay off in the end.”

Twenty starters return for the Huskies, and Walker thinks with that experience, the game has “slowed down a lot” on the defensive end.

 

INCARNATE WORD

Head coach: Eric Morris (second year, 6-5) | 2018 record: 6-5, 6-2 Southland, co-champion, NCAA first round | First game: at UTSA, 5 p.m. Aug. 31 | Home vs. Lamar: 4 p.m. Oct. 19

Morris, who was hired in December 2017, said it took about 1½ years to feel like he had his Cardinals going in the right direction. He did 11 months into his hiring, when UIW shared the Southland title with Nicholls and competed in the NCAA playoffs.

Had Lamar’s Caleb Abrom not returned a blocked field goal kick for a touchdown, UIW might have won the Southland outright. Regardless, Morris’ Cards — just as Schultz’s — are learning how to carry a target in the league.

“Finding out how to handle success is the hardest thing to do,” Morris said. “There’s a reason they pay Nick Saban, Lincoln Riley and Dabo Swinney a lot of money.

Last year, I stood up here and we were picked second-to-last. None of that matters.”

 

McNEESE STATE

Head coach: Sterlin Gilbert (first year) | 2018 record: 6-5, 5-4 Southland, tied for fourth | First game: Home vs. Southern, 6 p.m. Aug. 31 | at Lamar: 3 p.m. Nov. 23

Beat Lamar, and McNeese State probably still employs Lance Guidry as head coach.

Instead, former University of Texas offensive coordinator Gilbert has taken the reins. Gilbert followed head coach Charlie Strong down to South Florida following Strong’s firing in 2016, and both helped the Bulls become contenders in the American Athletic Conference.

Junior quarterback Cody Orgeron, son of LSU coach Ed Orgeron, said the McNeese locker room has a different mentality with Gilbert on board after three seasons under Guidry, who failed to take the Cowboys to the NCAA playoffs.

“Coming in, I know the importance of winning early and start off on the right foot,” Cody Orgeron said. “I look forward to giving coach Gilbert that.”

As for that Battle of the Border rivalry with Lamar, Gilbert said that game “feels way back right now” in the schedule.

“Right now, our attention is on the Cowboys,” he said.

 

NICHOLLS STATE

Head coach: Tim Rebowe (fifth year, 25-22) | 2018 record: 9-4, 7-2 Southland, co-champion, NCAA second round | First game: at Kansas State, Aug. 31 | No game vs. Lamar

Like Morris at UIW, Rebowe is learning how to handle Southland success.

“I didn’t want to know where we were predicted to be,” said Rebowe, who was the leadoff coach at Media Day. “I tried to block it out.”

It was no secret on Thursday. The Colonels were favored to repeat as champions.

One big reason is senior quarterback Chase Fourcade, an All-America third team performer according to HERO Sports.

“It’s very special and very exciting knowing where we came from,” Fourcade said. Nicholls was 0-12 in 2014, but went 4-7, 5-6 and 8-4 in Rebowe’s first three seasons. “Coach Rebowe is a great person and a great guy to be around. … Just like he said, we try to take it week by week. It’s amazing to see how far we came.”

Nicholls will visit Prairie View A&M on Sept. 14 after an early bye week.

 

NORTHWESTERN STATE

Head coach: Brad Laird (second year, 5-6) | 2018 record: 5-6, 4-5 Southland, tied for eighth | First game: at Tennessee-Martin, 6:30 p.m. Aug. 29

Northwestern State won three of its last four games to salvage a 5-6 mark, good enough for a one-win improvement from 2017. A two-point loss to Abilene Christian cost the Demons any chance of a winning record, not to mention a four-game losing streak following a 49-48 win at Lamar.

“With the seniors, you saw everybody hold each other more accountable,” senior safety Nick Forde said.

But the accountability showed by the third day of preseason camp.

“Our team, we couldn’t show up at 6 a.m. But by the third day, we showed up and we showed out,” offensive lineman Chris Zirkle said.

 

SAM HOUSTON STATE

Head coach: K.C. Keeler (seventh year, 52-17) | 2018 record: 6-5, 5-4 Southland, tied for fourth | First game: at New Mexico, time TBD, Aug. 31 | Home vs. Lamar, time TBD, Oct. 12

The Bearkats found themselves in an unfamiliar place during the postseason — home.

Two seasons ago, the Bearkats reached the national semifinals in their seventh straight postseason appearance, a streak that began with two trips to the NCAA title game (both losses to North Dakota State).

“It’s amazing how this conference has grown and changed in the last six years,” Keeler said. “… Everybody has put in resources to catch the guys at the top, and it was amazing to see the parity last year.”

Among the resources were new uniforms.

“I had three different teams who bought special gray uniforms coming after us,” Keeler said. “They asked me for permission. I said, ‘Sure. You guys spent the money for those uniforms to play us in. You break them out.’ We took a step back. We have to go back to where we were.”

Keeler responded to the postseason miss by hiring a strength coach, dietitian and academic personnel.

 

SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA

Head coach: Frank Scelfo (second year, 4-7) | 2018 record: 4-7, 4-5 Southland, tied for eighth | First game: Home vs. Jacksonville (Ala.) State, 7 p.m. Aug. 29 | Home vs. Lamar: 7 p.m. Sept. 21

When Southeastern Louisiana beat Lamar 30-24 last year, few might have expected the Cardinals to evolve into an NCAA playoff team.

“He’s had a huge mountain to overcome, and he’s starting the see the results of putting things in place,” SLU’s Scelfo said.

Scelfo wants to find out where the Lions stand early, so they’ll kick off the season against Jacksonville State on Aug. 29. At least, for the Lions, the game will be in Hammond.

“Let’s find out who we are, what we need to do, what corrections we need to make,” Scelfo said. “Let’s evaluate and see the things we thought we should have done and the things we did well.

“I want to go out and play those guys. We want to be where they are. We want to be in the national playoffs every year. We don’t want to be eliminated in weeks 8, 9, 10 or 11.”

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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