Head football coach K.C. Keeler brings a 52-17 record into his sixth season at the helm for the Bearkats. Despite putting together SHSU’s ninth consecutive winning season last year, the Kats missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
The Bearkats’ 6-5 finish last season and the starting quarterback situation are major reasons that SHSU sits in just fourth place in the SLC preseason poll. Despite Nicholls, Central Arkansas and Incarnate Word being picked ahead of SHSU, Keeler is optimistic that SHSU can make a postseason run.
“I don’t think our guys really pay attention to that,” Keeler said in an exclusive interview at Southland Conference Media Day. “We were ranked number one last year and didn’t end up there. I think, especially in FCS football, no one really knows a lot about what has happened in the offseason. We’ve had a phenomenal summer.”
Long Trips, Early Bonding
SHSU’s non-conference schedule marks a couple of long-distance trips for the team as they travel to battle FBS opponent New Mexico to open the campaign on August 31 and will then make the trek to North Dakota week three. The Kats will face an FBS opponent to begin their season for the first time since 2015 against Texas Tech. SHSU and New Mexico last met in 2011 when the Kats edged out the Lobos 48-45 in overtime.
“Sometimes you need a trip like that,” Keeler said. “Sometimes you can’t invent some of the stuff that happens on a road trip to bring guys together. We go and play a Division I school on the road at New Mexico. I think the kids will be very excited about that. Long road trips are a great way to bring teams together.”
The home opener comes Sept. 7 when Oklahoma Panhandle State comes to Huntsville. Sept. 14 will be the Kats’ third and final non-conference matchup as they head to North Dakota before returning home to open conference play against the UIW Cardinals who earned a playoff berth in 2018.
SHSU will look to continue its dominance of the annual Battle of the Piney Woods game at NRG Stadium on Oct. 5 when they face the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. The Kats have won the last eight consecutive BOTPW games and lead the all-time series 55-35-2.
“The competitiveness of this conference has really gone to a new level,” Keeler said.
Total Package of Transfers
Keeler and the Bearkats were able to fill many holes thanks to a rich class of transfers, including University of Texas running back Toneil Carter who will likely split duties in the backfield with Kyran Jackson.
“[Jackson] has really taken his conditioning and weight workouts to a new level,” Keeler said. “[Carter] is one of those guys who has this unbelievable God-given talent. He’s 210 pounds and runs a low 4.4 [40-yard dash].”
According to Keeler, freshman Alex Williams out of Memorial High School and sophomore Donovan Williams have both had “phenomenal” off seasons.
“Last year we really struggled at the running back position,” Keeler said. “We have four running backs now that we can give the ball to. All four of them can run in space. There’s a lot of versatility at the running back spot, and also it gives us some pretty good depth that we didn’t have last year.”
On the other side of the ball, a pair of transfers — UTEP lineman Trace Mascorro and Oregon State corner Dwayne Williams — provide leadership and experience.
“We’re so excited for Trace [Mascorro],” Keeler said. “We saw glimpses of what he can do in the spring. He had a great summer. I think he will be an All-Conference level player, maybe an All-American level player.
“[Williams] started 23 games in the Pac 12,” Keeler said. “He wanted to get back to Texas, go to grad school, wanted to win. Having him in the spring was big because there is a level of confidence and you know he can be a big time player.”
Williams will join twin brothers Zyon and Tristin McCollum along with Jaylen Thomas in what Keeler said could be one of the best secondaries in the country this year.
One of the cornerstones of the Bearkats offense will be senior wide receiver Nathan Stewart. He enters the 2019 campaign with the prestigious opportunity of becoming just the third player in FCS history to accumulate 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons.
“[Stewart] is one of the greats I have ever coached,” Keeler said. “He’s really competitive. He got an ankle surgery in the middle of the spring. In the long run, it might be a good thing. He spent so much time in the weight room and is tremendously strong. You’ll see us move him around a bunch.”
Sophomore Dee Bowens gives the team a huge burst of speed that will be important in the slot for the Kats’ offense, and junior Coree Compton and his 6’3” 190-pound frame will return after missing last season. Some new faces including junior Christian Graves and Marshall transfer Brennon Tibbs will likely get some targets, as well.
The Bearkats kick off Aug. 31 at 5 p.m. at New Mexico in Albuquerque. The game will broadcast live on 101.7 KSAM.