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Unbeaten SEMO Redhawks walk bridge of optimism into 2008
Optimism runs rampant at every college football team’s media day, when the won-lost records still are unblemished.
Even here at Southeast Missouri State, which finished one-half game out of the Ohio Valley Conference basement last year and lost to the team that finished behind it.
Consider the words of sophomore receiver Miles Edwards as he was interviewed under the hot sun on the hot turf at Houck Stadium on Monday morning: “To be honest with you, I expect us to go undefeated. It’s hard, but I just feel good about our players.”
Hold up, Mr. Edwards. The second game of the season is at Missouri, a top-10 team in the national rankings for Division I-A.
“They tie their shoes just like us,” he added. “I’m just that comfortable.”
Southeast coach Tony Samuel, on the other hand, spent Monday dodging the question of how to quantify exactly how much better this season — his third — will be than his first two, which have produced an overall record of 7-15 and a two-year OVC log of 3-12.
He said he had no answer to the media’s “crystal ball” questions, instead preferring that his players focus on the now instead of the past or the future.
“Right now,” Samuel said, “there are so many unanswered questions, and it’s hard to make statements on stuff that I am not ready to make yet. Tomorrow is the first day we actually practice.”
Samuel did not fall into the trap that he did a year ago, when he called out the preseason poll that had the Redhawks billed for eighth in the OVC, ahead of only Samford and new scholarship program Austin Peay.
“We don’t accept any preseason rankings … by people that really don’t know our team,” Samuel said on this occasion last year. He saw leadership and unity, causing him to say “I don’t accept that eighth ranking thing.”
Eighth was off the mark.
The Redhawks sputtered to ninth, finishing way behind Austin Peay, behind Samford and barely ahead of Murray State. The only conference game they won was the finale, a come-from-behind victory against Jacksonville State.
2007 was a turbulent year with several newcomers trying to find their roles, a revolving door at quarterback before Houston Lillard took the position (and was set back by an injury), and a season-ending suspension for standout running back Timmy Holloman.
On Monday, the closest Samuel came to putting pressure on his program’s progress was when he talked about how close the Redhawks were last year, even though five of the seven Division I-AA losses — which came consecutively — saw Southeast surrender more than 30 points while scoring 20 or fewer.
“A lot of people in this room have no idea how close we came to breaking out,” Samuel said during the luncheon program. “Some people do, but a lot of people have no idea how close we came last year, which would have put us ahead of schedule.”
We should find out this year if the Redhawks are on schedule, and that schedule has to include something better than last year’s 3-8 mark. Nine offensive starters and eight defensive starters are listed as returning along with All-American honorable mention kicker/punter Doug Spada.
Returning offensive captain and fifth-year senior Mike Williamson said more than 60 Southeast players — more than three times as many players as during his previous years — stayed around for the summer to lift weights, work on conditioning, play some 7-on-7 contests and create bonds.
“We’ve got a lot more people back relative to last year,” Samuel said, “and they spent the summer here, most of them, so now we go from there and see how we do.”
Players like Edwards and Lillard were willing to talk about high expectations and this year’s OVC preseason poll, which was even more unkind to the Redhawks than last year’s by putting them a distant ninth among nine teams.
“They picked us ninth, and we have so many returning people,” Lillard said. “They don’t even understand what we’ve got over here, and I’m ready to showcase it because I know we’ve got something that’s going to prove a lot of people wrong.”
How wrong? “OVC championship,” Lillard said.
Samuel did tread into some of the areas he spoke of last year, about the mindset of the team being better than last year, about the unity forged during the summer.
But when talking about why people should get on the bandwagon this fall, he said, “It’s our responsibility to do well. If we play well and show well, they’ll come.”
To be fair, Samuel may have been among the few to expect Southeast to defy expectations last year, when the program broke in 23 new players. That transition from the first season to the second, they say, is the toughest in a rebuilding job. Will this year be easier?
“Tougher, easier, all of those things really have no bearing at this point,” Samuel said. “All we’re going to do right now is lock in, start camp, focus on team unity, focus on fundamentals, and then we’ll see what happens.”
Unbeaten Redhawks walk bridge of optimism into 2008
By Toby Carrig, The Southeast Missourian