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What a difference a turnaround season can make.
On the heels of back-to-back losing seasons, not much was expected of Sam Houston State in 2010. That was reflected in last year’s All-Southland preseason football squads as the Bearkats were shut out from the first and second teams.
Without much fanfare coming into last season — Willie Fritz’s first as the Bearkats’ head coach — Sam Houston State won four straight games after opening the season with two lopsided losses. The youthful Bearkats were a few points shy, losing a total of three Southland contests by 11 points, of winning a conference championship.
That’s why the 2011 league preseason teams look far different as 11 Bearkats were selected to either the first or second teams (three on offense, five on defense and three on special teams).
“Last year, coming in with so many young guys, we didn’t really know what was going to happen,” said SHSU senior offensive lineman Travis Watson, who landed on the All-SLC’s preseason second team. “We were just taking each game one at a time. We got into that four-game roll and we kind of developed a mentality in that we knew we could win now.
“After seeing how we played and not having many changes personnel-wise, we’ve just got more practice under our belt in the spring and we’ve just got more confidence that we haven’t had in a long time. We know we can go out there and beat everybody in our conference.”
After rushing for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in his freshman season, running back Tim Flanders was the lone Bearkat selected to the All-SLC first-team offense.
“I really feel like Tim Flanders has the chance to be the top running back in FCS football. I’m very impressed with him,” Fritz said Wednesday.
Creating running lanes for Flanders will be Watson and junior offensive lineman Caleb Hopson, who were both second-team All-SLC selections.
“Offensive line-wise, Travis Watson is a great leader for us,” Fritz said. “Caleb Hopson, I think the sky’s the limit for him. He’s got the size and athletic ability to be a dominating tackle in the Southland Conference.”
On the defensive side of the ball, which allowed a little more than 20 points a game against Southland opponents, four Bearkats earned first-team recognition in 2011.
Senior J.T. Cleveland, who recorded 4 1/2 sacks and seven tackles for negative yardage in 2010, and sophomore Preston Sanders anchor the defensive line, while senior linebacker Will Henry and defensive back Kenneth Jenkins, who picked off three passes, were first-team preseason selections.
Junior defensive back Darnell Taylor landed on the second team defense.
“Defensively, we have a lot of guys that have played significant minutes for the last couple of years” Fritz said.
“Will Henry is a very deserving first-team All-Southland preseason pick and Kenneth Jenkins, who was a first-team pick in the fall when the season concluded, Darnell Taylor, J.T. Cleveland and Preston Sanders. I’m a little surprised with Preston because he didn’t get much notoriety last season, but we’re really thinking he can be an excellent football player for us.”
Special teams, which was Fritz’s specialty when he was an assistant coach at Sam Houston in 1991 and ‘92, also shined last fall.
Senior Brandon Closner, who racked up 1,361 yards returning punts and kickoffs, including one punt return for a score, along with kicker Miguel Antonio and punter Matt Foster, were selected to the special teams second team.
“Matt Foster and Miguel Antonio were both top-notch,” Fritz added.
The accolades and expectations are well-received, but the Bearkats fully expect to contend for a conference championship this fall. A few days before summer camp opens, the Bearkats say they have other accomplishments they would like to see come to fruition.
“It’s really nice. It’s good to be recognized for all the hard work we’ve put in,” Watson said.
“As far as all that goes, I know every one of those guys (on the All-Southland preseason teams) would trade that in a heartbeat to win conference. It’s nice to be on there, but we’ve got team goals to accomplish.”
By Gene Schallenberg, The Huntsville Item