Preseason favorites a year ago, the Southern Arkansas football team finished the 2017 campaign tied for fourth in the Great American Conference after a 7-4 campaign.
Three of the four defeats last season were by seven points or fewer leaving a focused burning desire to flip the script in 2018. Heading into that highly-anticipated season, which is slated to kick-off on August 30, the Muleriders are picked to finish third according to the GAC Preseason Coaches Poll that was released on Thursday afternoon.
In being picked third, the Muleriders totaled 91 points in the poll and were one of four teams to receive at least one first-place vote. Picked ahead of SAU by the league coaches are Harding and Ouachita. Harding, who began last year at 0-3 and then ripped off 11-straight wins to advance to the national semifinals, is picked to win the GAC in 2018 after totaling 118 points and receiving eight first-place votes. Reigning regular season champion Ouachita is slotted second with 111 points and two first-place votes.
Just behind SAU are Southeastern Oklahoma and Arkansas Tech. The two tied for fourth-place in the rankings in points with 86. Southeastern received one first-place vote to slightly edge the Wonder Boys. Just off that pace is Henderson, who is ranked sixth with a total of 81 points.
Beyond Henderson, there is a significant drop off with Arkansas-Monticello tabbed seventh, but after receiving just 58 points. Northwestern Oklahoma is not far behind UAM with 55 points. Spots 9-12 again saw a significant drop with Southern Nazarene totaling 30 points at ninth followed by Southwestern Oklahoma at 10th with 28 points. East Central and Oklahoma Baptist tied for the final ranking with 24 points.
The last time a SAU football team won a conference championship was 1997 when the Muleriders were co-champions in the vaunted Gulf South Conference. Just once after that have the Muleriders advanced to the NCAA Division II Playoffs with that appearance coming in 2003. Despite that drought, SAU has been on the doorstep of both of those accomplishments the last three seasons winning at least seven games each year and going 23-11 in that time.
Heading into the 2018 season, head coach Bill Keopple has SAU eager and focused on taking that next step as they return 38 lettermen and 12 starters from a year ago.
One of the consistencies for the Mulerider football team in recent years has been the offense. Under the guidance of Landon Keopple as offensive coordinator since 2011, the Muleriders have averaged over 450 yards per game and scored an average of 35.0 points per game, making the unit one of the most prolific in the country.
Guiding the offense on the field the last three seasons has been quarterback Barrett Renner. The Rowlett, Texas native returns for his senior season and will once again be one of the lynchpins of the offense. A three-time All-GAC QB, Renner will enter his final season as a Mulerider with a chance at placing himself atop a couple of all-time collegiate football lists within the state of Arkansas. With 9,905 passing yards and 95 touchdown passes so far in his career, Renner is 3,773 yards and 29 touchdowns away from tying former Henderson State quarterback Kevin Rodgers (2011-14) for the Arkansas collegiate record in both categories.
Despite losing two of his favorite targets to graduation in Tanner Hudson and Jonathan Weisheit, Renner will still have numerous weapons to turn to in the passing game in 2018. Chief among those targets will be Karonce Higgins. The senior native of Searcy had a breakout season last year as he was an All-GAC First-Team selection after he hauled in 54 catches for 623 yards and 9 touchdowns. One of the fastest receivers in the GAC, Higgins averaged 11.5 yards per catch last year and a long reception of 50 yards.
Like Renner, Higgins enters his final season with eyes on career records as he is within reach of three major receiving records at SAU. In 2018, Higgins needs 54 receptions to tie Weisheit for the all-time reception record and he needs 1,015 yards and 15 touchdown receptions to tie recent SAU Hall of Fame inductee Nik Lewis' career records for those categories.
Joining Higgins as viable receiving options returning from a year ago are seniors Darrion Ardoin and Kile Pletcher along with juniors Desmond Jones and Jared Lancaster. Lancaster emerged as a reliable target last season as he was fourth on the team in receptions (30) and third in yards (457) and touchdowns (5). Competing for increased roles will be junior Kam Kelley and redshirt freshmen Micah Small and Cam Davis. The Mulerider will also welcome in a talented corps of freshmen that will figure in the mix as well.
On the ground, SAU will have the replace two-time All-GAC running back Michael Nunnery. A near 1,000-yard back last year, Nunnery totaled 2,047 yards and 24 rushing TDs his last two seasons as he became the workhorse in the Mulerider backfield. Despite the loss of Nunnery, the Muleriders' running game is left in capable hands with the return of juniors SirCharles Perkins and Keiandre Purifoy. Both tailbacks had over 40 carries a year ago with Purifoy creeping near the century mark. The duo combined for 625 yards and three scores last season, but will be counted on heavily for increased production in 2018.
Adding to the depth of the position are sophomores Lorenzo Alexander and Joshua Bland. Alexander is a transfer from Southern Nazarene University and last played in 2014. That year he rushed for over 900 yards and was an All-GAC Honorable Mention selection. A pair of redshirt freshmen will also add to the depth with Dennis Daniels and Lance Smith looking to get their Mulerider careers off to a solid start.
Charged with protecting the passing game and paving the way for the running game is the offensive line. A year ago, that unit allowed just six sacks in 11 games making them tied for the second fewest in DII. Of the five starters from that front, however, just two return with Trey Thomas and Drew Crawford back. The lone junior college transfer added for 2018, Mason Grantz will vie for a starting spot as well as redshirt sophomores Mason Harding and Steven Taylor.
Offensive line was a point of emphasis in recruiting for 2018 as the Muleriders signed 11 talented linemen out of high school this past February. That influx of youth at the position is expected to create energy and quality competition with several of those true freshmen penciled in for playing time.
While the offense has traditionally been the strength of the Mulerider football team, the defense has improved itself tremendously in recent years and has turned into a strength as well. This past year, the Mulerider defense was the second-best in the GAC allowing just 346.5 yards of total offense by their opponents. It was the second-straight year that the defense performed that highly in the GAC.
This year, the defensive efforts will be coordinated under new DC Chad Adams. Adams is an experienced DC with prior knowledge of the GAC as he was the DC at Ouachita from 2013-2015. In 2014, Adams helped the Tigers go unbeaten in the regular season.
At SAU, Adams will have the return services of seven starters from a year ago, but that number truthfully is nine with the return from season-ending injuries for Stacy Lawrence and Malik Preston. Both Lawrence and Preston were starters in 2016 as well as All-GAC performers, but saw their seasons end before week three.
Undoubtedly, the most experienced and talented area of the defense will be the line as the Muleriders have three returning All-GAC players along the front. Highlighted among those is Davondrick Lison. The senior native of Arkansas City was the GAC's Defensive Player of the Year last season as well an All-America honoree and a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award.
In 2017, Lison returned from an injury plagued 2016 campaign and proved he was a force to be reckoned with as he led the team in sacks with 7.5 and tied for the lead in tackles for lost yardage with 16.5. Both of those totals could have been higher as he was credited with a team-high nine quarterback hurries as well.
Lison will enter his senior season looking to become the all-time sack leader at SAU. With 18.5 career sacks through his junior season, Lison is 6.5 shy of tying the mark set by David Sanders (1989-1992). Lison's single-season best sack total is 9.0, set in his freshman season of 2015.
Wreaking havoc in the trenches alongside Lison as returning All-GAC players are Antonio and Anthony Washington. The brothers from Marshall, Texas are a year apart in age, but bring the same level of talent to the position. Anthony was an All-GAC Honorable Mention selection as a junior, while the younger Antonio was an All-GAC Second-Team selection last year as a redshirt freshman. Both brothers were among the top-three on the team in total tackles and combined for 118 tackles with 24.5 coming for lost yardage and 8.5 coming as sacks.
Joining Lison and the Washington brothers with returning experience are seniors Kendrix McCann and Malachi Pointer and both will see ample time in the rotation. A transfer from Division I-FBS Miami (Ohio) last year, Deion Cineus figures to see an increased role on the line as well.
The linebacker position was a spot last year that was hit the hardest by injury losing the services of the aforementioned Malik Preston as well as Corey Jenkins. Those injuries forced the Muleriders to play freshmen with DeMarcus Pegue and Kobe McDonald stepping into starting roles. Preston is back for his redshirt junior season and Pegue and McDonald, one season more of experience, will remain in the fold at linebacker.
Increased depth will come from the likes of Sha'mikel Ashton, Bijan Mitchell, and Braylon Waits. Additionally, a pair of true freshman and a pair of redshirt freshmen will push for playing time.
In the secondary, the Muleriders return Kaseem Smith and La'Montrick Turner as starters from last year and welcome Stacy Lawrence back from injury. Lorenzo Watkins, Jimmie Houston and Antonio Bell add experience to the unit and provide quality depth as well.
Special teams will be the biggest area of unknown and potential concern as the Muleriders graduated both their primary punter in Tanner Hudson and primary place kicker in Bradford Grems. Three kickers and a punter enter fall camp vying for the vacant roles. Jordan White and Conroe McMullan have been on campus but have not seen any action yet in their careers. Austin Wilkerson and Alfonso Deleon are true freshmen that will add to the competition.
The Muleriders are slated to open their 2018 season at home at Wilkins Stadium at Rip Powell Field in primetime on Thursday, August 30 as they welcome in Arkansas Tech University. It will be the first of just four games at home for the Muleriders as they will once more carry a home game east to El Dorado and play in the Murphy USA Classic. This year's matchup in the classic will be against Henderson State on October 27.
Other home games on the schedule for the Muleriders include a September 22 night game against Northwestern Oklahoma, which will also serve as Family Day. The Muleriders will also host Southern Nazarene on October 6 and the final game at Wilkins Stadium is scheduled for October 20 against East Central. That game will also be Homecoming and Hall of Fame weekend.
Since 2012, the Muleriders are 24-3 when playing at Wilkins Stadium at Rip Powell Field.
With just four true home games on the schedule, a majority of the slate will take place on the road. The first of their road tests will come in Week 2 at Harding and will be immediately followed by a Week 3 trip to Weatherford, Okla. for a game against Southwestern Oklahoma. The Muleriders will also make trips to play at Oklahoma Baptist (September 29), Southeastern Oklahoma (October 13), Ouachita (November 3) and Arkansas-Monticello (November 10).