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2004 Bearkat Football Outlook Bright

Special to the N.E.T. Sports Gazette

HUNTSVILLE, Texas - In his 22 years as a head football coach at Sam Houston State, Ron Randleman never had a team as young as his 2003 Bearkats. More than half of last year’s roster consisted of freshmen and sophomores.

The Bearkats played 20 freshmen and 10 sophomores in the two-deep during the Southland Conference portion of the 2003 schedule.

The inexperience hurt as SHSU struggled to a 2-9 record. But the good news is, all that young talent is back and some top newcomers have Bearkat fans excited about 2004.

“We played more true freshmen last year than we ever have here,” said Randleman. “But they are good players, and we have been pleased with the progress they have made. We are still a little young in spots, but these are youngsters with a year’s experience now. We have a better balance between experience and youth and more depth this season.”

The Bearkats return 48 of 62 lettermen including 18 starters. Five players who earned All-Southland Conference honors in 2003 are back -- offensive linemen Stephen Izevbizua (6-1, 315) and Chris Louvier (6-5, 290), running back Jason Godfrey (6-0, 225), and wide receivers Jarrod Fuller (5-8, 170) and Vincent Cartwright (6-4, 215).

“The most impressive thing about our returning players is their attitude,” said Randleman. “We had a disappointing season in 2003. The players feel they have a lot to prove and have a good sense of what it will take to succeed. We accomplished a lot in spring training and are excited about the coming 2004 season.”

Two new faces brought excitement to the Bearkats’ spring drills as a pair of top quarterbacks transferred from NCAA Division I-A teams. Senior Dustin Long (6-3, 210) passed for 3,118 yards the past two years at Texas A&M while sophomore Noah Allen (6-3, 219) came to SHSU from the University of Oklahoma.

Long and Allen combined for 341 yards passing in the 2004 Orange-White spring game. Long completed a 38-yard touchdown pass to Cartwright for the winning points on the last play of the contest. All three quarterbacks from last year’s team also return including Travis Tobaben (6-3, 215) who threw for 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns; Wade Pate (6-3, 200) who passed for 910 yards and four touchdowns; and Adam Karas (6-0, 185).

Fuller and Cartwright lead an impressive group of wide receivers. Fuller led the Southland Conference in receptions per game (5.2) last season with 47 catches for 628 yards. Cartwright has 44 receptions for 775 yards and six touchdowns to his credit in his three years as a Bearkat.

Other returning receivers include Bernard Campbell (5-8, 170), Cory Crawford (6-1, 200), and Cory Zeno (5-10, 190). In 2003, Campbell caught 34 passes for 384 yards, Zeno 20 for 255 yards, and Crawford 19 for 312 yards. Jason Mathenia (6-0, 193), the leading receiver in the Southland in 2002, also returns.
Corey Roberts (6-5, 235) moved from wide receiver to tight end during Southland Conference portion of the 2003 schedule should be the starter for 2004. Redshirt freshman Blake Martin (6-3, 245) provides depth at tight end.
Godfrey ranked fourth in SLC rushing as a sophomore. He rushed for more than 100 yards four times with 712 of his 725 yards rushing coming in the final seven games of the season. Stevie Smith (5-11, 185) was third in the league in all-purpose yards (114.2 per game), rushing for 454 yards. Robert Garmon (5-9, 185), who ranks fifth in all-time SHSU kickoff return yards (813) moved to running back this fall. Brad Baca (5-11, 215) joins the Bearkats as a transfer running back from Air Force.

Izevbizua and Louvier, both seniors, are the veteran leaders of a young but improving offensive line. Junior Jarrod Westerman (6-3, 275) and sophomores Lance Hancock (6-6, 275) and Chris Pope (6-3, 305) all saw extensive action during the 2003 season. Raymond Serres (6-4, 270), a transfer from Texas Tech, sophomore Stephen Akindona (6-4, 280), and redshirt freshmen Ben Savell (6-2, 285), Brennan Williams (6-0, 270), and Brock McDaniel (6-2, 270) provide depth.

“Both of the transfer quarterbacks throw the long ball well and, combined with a quality group of wide receivers, give us the potential to have an explosive, big play offense,” said Randleman. “We have good depth at running back as well. Our offensive line continues to improve but is one of the positions where we still are extremely young.”

Eight starters are part of the group of 26 lettermen returning on defense for the 2004 Bearkats. Senior Steven Hagler (6-3, 255), juniors Jeff Mayhew (6-4, 290) and John Griffin (6-3, 265), and sophomore Ed Jackson (6-3, 245) comprise the defensive front four. Jackson and Griffin led the Bearkats in quarterback sacks last season with four apiece. Sophomore lettermen David Branch (6-2, 265), Brandon Villanueva (6-0, 295), and Aaron Ivey (6-3, 255) and redshirt freshman Jeremy Wilson (6-1, 280) bring depth to the defensive line.

Junior Marcus Mikulec (6-2, 245) started all 11 games last season at linebacker, totaling 102 tackles. Sophomore Jerod Brown (6-2, 245) steps into a starting role after making 25 tackles as a freshman. Michael Saumell-Baston (6-0, 245), a senior three-year letterman who redshirted last season, returns to provide quality depth at linebacker along with redshirt freshman Ayo Akindona (6-2, 210).

Seniors Paul Donelson (6-0, 210) and Mark Hughes (5-9, 175) provide leadership in the secondary. Both were key players on the 2001 Southland Conference championship team. Hughes ranks ninth in Sam Houston State career interceptions with seven. Donelson has 99 career tackles to his credit.
Senior Ronnie Johnson (5-10, 175), juniors Greg Brown (5-11, 185) and Robert Herron (6-1, 190), and sophomores Chadd Oliphant (6-0, 190), Derrick Harris (5-10, 180), Tony Jones (5-10, 205), and D. D. Terry (6-2, 190) bring additional talent to the Sam Houston defensive backfield.

“Defensively, we weren’t stopping people last year,” said Randleman. “We have some work to do. We made progress in the spring. We have better depth and good leadership. Creating a positive turnover ratio by eliminating offensive mistakes and forcing more take-aways will help as well.”

Special team play looks to be a team strength for 2004. All of Sam Houston State’s top special teams players return. Joey Price (5-8, 190) begins his senior season ranked third in all-time Bearkat kick scoring (168 points) with 81 career extra points and 29 field goals. Curtis Parks (6-2, 200) ranked third in the Southland Conference in punting (39.1 average) as a true freshman. Sophomore Patrick Holland (6-2, 230) is back for his third year as Sam Houston State’s deep snap specialist.

Besides their roles on offense, Campbell, Smith, and Garmon were productive on special teams. Campbell stood third in the Southland in punt returns (10.3 yards per return) last season. Smith was second in the league in kickoff returns (25.1 yards per return) including a 99-yard touchdown. Garmon has averaged 21.3 yards per kickoff return the past two seasons.

“We return a lot of good young players with speed and the experience to make good things happen on special teams,” said Randleman.
Sam Houston State will play seven home games in 2004, the most regular season games at Bowers Stadium since 1994.

During the past three seasons, the Bearkats traveled across the country to span three time zones playing in Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan, Arizona, and Montana.

“We certainly have been road warriors lately,” said Randleman. “We play several quality opponents this year, but having seven games at Bowers Stadium certainly will help.”

The 2004 Southland Conference race again appears to be one of the most competitive in NCAA Division I-AA football.

“This year’s race is wide open. Anyone could win,” said Randleman. “Last year, McNeese State was seen as the powerhouse, and they went through the league undefeated. This year, however, everyone is improved with quality teams from top to bottom. We intend to be in the hunt. What pleases me most about this year’s team is that we have more competition for starting roles at every position. That’s something that can only make you better.”

Sunday August 21, 2004

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