Lions Football Camp Preview
Optimism Shines for SAGU Gridders
WAXAHACHIE, Texas -- After a 2009 season that ended with surging momentum, Southwestern Assemblies of God University hopes to parlay the good fortune into a winning campaign this fall. The Lions had a number of questions answered, particularly on offense, and rode a young and developing defense to finish the year with three consecutive wins. SAGU expects much of that talent to return into what could become the first winning record in their young history.
SAGU begins the 2010 season on Saturday, September 4, when they host Austin College at 7:00pm at Lumpkins Stadium. After a road trip at Howard Payne on Sept. 11, the Lions return home for a historic clash with North Dakota's Trinity Bible College. It will be the first-ever meeting between two Assembly of God institutions on the gridiron.
SAGU Sports in Hi-Def
A major story that has the Southwestern Athletic Department beaming is the announcement the Lions will be broadcasting all five of their home football games on the internet this year via video-streaming. Not only will the games be free to the public, but SAGU will be the only team in the Central States Football League to televise their games and the lone school in the CSFL and the Red River Athletic Conference (14 members) to do so in high-definition. The school's Media Department will be producing not only the football games, but will also make ten home basketball doubleheaders (men's and women's teams) accessible from SAGU's Athletic website. John Cookman will be the producer of these broadcasts, with Landon Perry serving as the director.
Had the 2009 Jungle Kings any luck in their home Vegas Gold jerseys, they could have posted a 5-5 mark. An apparent two-point conversion in their triple overtime, 50-48 loss to Oklahoma Panhandle State was disallowed. Plus, a certain TD reception was dropped in the closing minutes of a 23-17 defeat at the hands of Howard Payne that was played in a driving rainstorm.
Taking the Offensive
No one clearly emerged at quarterback until midseason last fall, when true-freshman Jeremy Fowler (Caddo Mills, Tx / Caddo Mills HS), surfaced when he came off the bench to throw a record five, second-half TD passes in the OPSU game. The drop back passer led the Central States conference in passing efficiency, completing 61% of his attempts for 17 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
This year as many as eight QB's entered fall camp, according to Head Coach Jesse Godding, who serves as the squad's Offensive Coordinator. Unseating the productive Fowler will be a challenge, though he is recovering from off-season back surgery. Junior Traviyon Clark (Rosenberg, Tx / B.F. Terry HS) and sophomore Ryan Russ (Cordell, Ok / Cordell HS) gained experience in 2009, but the recent reacquisition of former starter Jason Rice (Katy, Tx / Faith West Academy),could find the Texas State transfer pressing to win back the job that he held two years ago. The 6'2 junior is a dual-threat as a runner and passer in the team's spread-option attack.
The offensive line figures to be stronger than a year ago, but must find a replacement for All-Conference right tackle J.W. Hall. With senior Mike Thomas (Washington, Tx / Brenham HS), junior Jacob Anderson (Tulsa, Ok / Union HS), senior Ryan Arellano (Gonzales, Tx / Gonzales HS) and sophomore R.J. Hunt (Midlothian, Tx / Midlothian HS) returning, Line Coach Shawn Daniel figures to fill remaining needs from an impressive group of new recruits. Last fall the line struggled in run-blocking the first half of the season, but yielded a league-low 16 sacks while in pass-protection. This group looks like they will show the most improvement on the team.
Sophomore Detrick Green, of Italy HS, led Lion running backs in rushing last fall with 368 yards. He has been moved to receiver, opening the way for a crop of talented freshmen backs. Chris Eiland (Quinlan, Tx / Ford HS) who rushed for 1,000 yards two seasons ago, is back and contending. The squad suffered a setback on the first day of camp when Waco's Cade Lueschner (Robinson HS), a slasher, reinjured his knee and is likely facing surgery.
The receiving corps is loaded with fresh, but mostly green talent. Three starters are gone; David Howard, Quentin Coleman and Chris Haggard, who combined for 130 receptions and 19 TD receptions, left a large void. Coach Godding planned well for this and has reeled in an impressive cast of wideouts and slot receivers. The mercurial Darion Waits (Ennis, Tx / Ennis HS) made 22 catches before being sidelined with a foot injury that required surgery. The junior has great hands, quickness and strength and has fully recovered, making him a candidate as a very capable return specialist. Sophomore David Hawthorne (Harrah, Ok / Star Spencer HS) and 6'3 senior speed merchant Taylor Wallis (Ennis, Tx / Ennis HS) lead the charge among the veterans.
An area of concern could be at placekicker where the reliable Raymond Santivanez graduated. He missed only two point after touchdown (PAT) kicks and connected on 7-of-11 field goals. Godding, though, is high on James Gish, who played in 2008 at Waxahachie High School.
Overall, the Lions of 2009 averaged 330 yards per game on offense, 257 of it through the air. SAGU ranked #45 in the country in total offense. That was impressive considering they were at 238 yards per contest after seven games. The passing attack rated 17th in the nation. Look to see a more varied offense, with a retooled ground attack.
A Defense That Never Rests
It's a great thing the defense came together last season. While the offense resembled a puzzle with missing pieces in the early going, the defense showed it was a force to be reckoned with, ranking #46 in the country. Against the run, the unit yielded 145-yards (ranked 40th) per outing, surrendering less than four yards per carry. The defense ranked second in the CSFL, and, during their 3-game winning streak the Lions defense gave up just 18 points per game. A key component was turnovers as they forced eleven in the trio of triumphs.
Collectively, this cohesive group played well together, and they return practically everyone. Defensive Coordinator John Allen's scheme, employing various alignments of a 4-2-5, had a linebacking crew that was second to no one.
Inside 'backers, senior Jared Hudgins (Midland, Tx / Midland Christian) and junior Dante Embry (Paris, Tx / Paris HS) roamed from sideline to sideline applying the brakes to opposing ballcariers. Hudgins led the entire nation in tackles, averaging 14.1 per game, while Embry was second (6.0) in stops, some of the ferocious variety. The full-throttle Hudge knows only one speed; all out. He gained national recognition in week two when he turned in a 23 tackle performance in the narrow loss to Howard Payne. Hudgins is known for his lateral pursuit, vision and relentless spirit. Embry incorporates strength, quickness and technique.
Allen's package employs multiple alignments to respond to various offensive sets and personnel. LB coach Shane Wheeler has a full arsenal of returning weapons at his disposal, including junior Quentin Holloman (Garland, Tx / Sachse HS), senior Derek Brewer (Denton, Tx / Guyer HS), senior Alex Moore (Breckenridge, Tx / Breckenridge HS), and sophomores Jonathan Bailey (Seagoville, Tx / Seagoville HS) and Nathan Kallal (Brighton, Il / Southwestern HS). The agile Holloman was fourth in tackles with Moore third in solo QB sacks. Watch for North Texas transfer Brad Heathcock as a hit-making stopper on the prowl.
The defensive front may be the area with the fiercest battles for playing time. Returning First Team All-Conference junior Jon Hulett (Corrigan, Tx / Corrigan HS) anchors the line, along with sophomore Josh Dowdell, of Waxahachie HS, at tackle. Senior Ryan McCray (Daytona Beach, Fl / Mainland HS), sophomore Ike Caston (Dallas, Tx / A+ Academy) and junior Patrick Smith (Bluffton, SC / Hilton Head Christian) are veteran holdovers. They applied better than average pressure on opposing passers, averaging 2.4 sacks per game. Allen and D-Line Coach Greg Timberman expect freshmen to push for starting positions. They are calling this perhaps the Lions best recruiting class ever.
The defensive backfield overcame some patchwork moments in the early stages of 2009 to become a ballhawking secondary that picked off 16 passes and allowed just 53% of passes to be completed. And they will probably only get better.
Sophomore Nick Ekanem (pronounced like economy, minus the y) (Richmond, Tx / B.F. Terry HS) was the ringleader as SAGU's shutdown cornerback. He led the nation in passes defended, combining passes broken up and interceptions. His nose for the ball, closing speed and cover skills made him a standout as a freshman. Several skilled corners are rising to the fore at camp seeking to start opposite of Ekanem. At safety is heady junior Joey Vinson (Patterson, La / Patterson HS). He was fifth on the team in tackles. Red Oak product Jackie Crathers (Red Oak, Tx / Cedar Hill HS), a sophomore, leads a contingent of athletic players who could step in at safety, linebacker or cornerback.
The Sporting News listed both Hudgins and Ekanem in their Preseason NAIA All-America First Team, and the two will be counted on as defensive catalysts.