Kats, Keeler kickoff season Saturday ranked No. 4

“No, it couldn’t be that many. Are you sure?” Sam Houston State University head football coach K.C. Keeler said in a joking manner when introduced into his 25th season as a head coach in college football and his fifth season at SHSU. With 18 returning starters, it is easy to see why the Bearkats were selected as the favorites in the preseason poll to win the Southland Conference in 2018.

Program Success

Keeler is the No. 3 active head coach in the FCS with an overall record of 220-85-1. SHSU has been one of the most successful DI football programs with him at the helm, accumulating 46 wins in the last four years and competing with some of the best teams in the country.

“46 wins in four years, with only Alabama, North Dakota State and Clemson as the only ones that have won more games than we have, I think it’s a cultural thing,” Keeler said. “They understand that when you are in our culture it’s about certain expectations. There’s accountability. When things aren’t going our way, we believe that we can get the ship righted.”

A stacked schedule

The 2018 regular season could be tough for the Bearkats. SHSU will play six of their nine conference games away from Bowers Stadium, including the annual Battle of the Piney Woods against Stephen F. Austin at the neutral NRG Stadium in Houston Oct. 6.

Keeler talked about the team’s mentality when looking at the schedule prior to the beginning of the season.

“It’s kind of interesting when you look at our player manual and you open up to that schedule, we don’t even have any teams on our schedule,” Keeler said. “We are leaving that page blank because it’s really more about us just trying to become the best football team we can. But, when you do take a step back and look at the schedule you realize ‘Boy, it’s front loaded’. Our guys face some of the best teams in the league right away.”

SHSU will open the 2018 campaign with two home games against non-conference opponents—Prairie View A&M and North Dakota. The Kats will then travel to Thibodaux, La. to face the Nicholls State Colonels.

“It’s going to be a great challenge to go to Nicholls early in the season to play them at their place,” Keeler said. ”Not only are they talented, but they also have a lot of confidence. There are going to be some great games early on in the season for us, no question.”

Southland strong

In the 2017 season, the Bearkats finished second in the Southland Conference with their only loss coming against the conference champion Central Arkansas Bears. Keeler addressed the strength and development of the conference in his four seasons at SHSU.

“This conference has gotten so much better since I’ve gotten here,” Keeler said. “I remember Abilene Christian, how well they played us until the end [last season] and how well their players are taught. I see that there are a lot of good, young coaches that have come into this conference. There is a lot of change. So, possibly we were voted preseason No. 1 because we do have a lot of guys coming back and I’ve become one of the old guys in this conference now.”

Keeler knows how difficult it is now to play the Southland as opposed to when he first arrived in Huntsville and realizes that no game is a guarantee win anymore.

“There was a time when you could look at your schedule and say, ‘here’s three or four that we feel pretty good about,’” Keeler said. “You don’t have those games anymore. Every game now is a game in where you feel like you need to have a great week of preparation because if you don’t, we are the hunted.”

New season, new offense

The Bearkats are known for their fast-paced play on the gridiron. In the 2017 season, SHSU snapped the ball on offense over 1,000 times.

Keeler talked about the style and tempo that the system being brought in by new offensive coordinator Ryan Carty will offer the team.

“Ryan Carty played for me at Delaware and was actually Joe Flacco’s backup,” Keeler said. “[Carty is a] tremendously bright individual in a league where those defenses were always better than the talent he had on offense. He’s used to going up against teams that have better people than he does. Playing fast is not unusual for him. He has that experience from when he was with Chip [Kelly]. We won’t give up scheme speed, and that is one of the things that he and I have talked about. Still play fast, but I think you will see us a bit more intricate with some of our schemes than we have been in the past.”

Quarterback battle

Mike Dare is a 6-foot 6-inch transfer from Lackawanna Junior College. He has spent time at Rutgers University as a redshirt quarterback before starting nine games for the Lackawanna Falcons. He went 124-215 (57.7 completion percentage) while throwing for 1,970 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His pass efficiency rating was 150.2.

Being a transfer to the team, Dare has had to adapt and learn quickly to the new program.

“Being the new guy here, I’m grasping the offense very quickly,” Dare said. “Getting to know the stars like Davion and Nate, getting used to them and getting to throw to them, it’s really easy now especially with the chemistry.”

Dare is not the Bearkats only threat in the backfield, however. Ty Brock and Eric Schmid have had an impressive offseason, as well.

“Ty Brock was the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country coming out for our level,” Keeler said. “Then we went to the Woodlands and got Eric Schmid, a young man who had 48 touchdowns and four interceptions his senior year. I think we have three [quarterbacks] that we can win with, and like I said Mike Dare, that experience of playing in the junior college, getting a full season in and those game reps really gives him a unique advantage early on.”

It will be interesting to see who is in the backfield when SHSU’s season kicks off Saturday at 6 p.m. at Elliot T. Bowers Stadium against the Prairie View A&M Panthers who the Kats beat 48-34 last year to open up 2017.

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