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2019 Southland Conference spring outlook

By CRAIG HALEY

STATS FCS Senior Editor

(STATS) - Southland Conference power Sam Houston State's step backward last season seemed to allow almost every other program in the conference to step forward.

That's overstating reality, of course, but it created the kind of parity that commissioner Tom Burnett only dreamed about previously.

The top seven teams were separated by two games while Nicholls shared the title with Incarnate Word and earned the conference's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

The Colonels will be favored to repeat in 2019, but a potential return to prominence by Sam Houston will be part of another deep, wide-open race.

Following is a look across the Southland with spring practices underway in college football:

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ABILENE CHRISTIAN

HEAD COACH: Adam Dorrel (8-14, two seasons; 84-22 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 26-April 5

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (6 offense/10 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The arrival of new defensive coordinator Clint Brown from South Dakota State means the Wildcats need continuity on that side of the ball, but the change is helped by the return of 10 starters, led by All-Southland first-team selection Jeremiah Chambers at middle linebacker.

NOTABLE: The Wildcats are building off the momentum of their first winning record on the Division I level. Provided the offensive line solidifies after the loss of three starters, quarterback Luke Anthony will lead a potent attack, which returns both 700-yard running backs, Tracy James and Billy McCrary, and No. 1 wide receiver Josh Fink.

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CENTRAL ARKANSAS

HEAD COACH: Nathan Brown (6-5, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 28-April 6

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Bears were senior-heavy at wide receiver last season, so some of the younger players must fill the void. The top returnee will be junior Brandon Myers.

NOTABLE: Starting quarterback Breylin Smith will return after missing the last eight games of Brown's first season, which included a three-game losing streak following a 5-2 start. While the offensive line is still developing depth, running backs Carlos Blackman and Kierre Crossley provide a potent 1-2 punch.

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HOUSTON BAPTIST

HEAD COACH: Vic Shealy (10-45, five seasons; 37-59-1 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 0-9 Southland (11th)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 11-March 22

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The Huskies are retooling various positions, including offensive line, where they loaded up on junior-college transfers; cornerback, where they're replacing starters Raphael Lewis and Derek Broussard; and kicker, where three freshman walk-ons finished the season handling the duties.

NOTABLE: The struggling Huskies have failed to build off their four-win campaign in 2016, but they're expecting improvement this year after entering last season with only eight returning starters. They're replacing linebacker Langston Tunson, the Southland's tackles leader, who had two years of eligibility remaining, but graduated early to enter law school.

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INCARNATE WORD

HEAD COACH: Eric Morris (6-5, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 6-2 Southland (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 10-March 7

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Following a share of the conference title and their first appearance in the FCS playoffs, the Cardinals have to replace offensive weapons at running back (all-conference selection Ra'Quanne Dickens) and wide receiver.

NOTABLE: Morris pointed the Cardinals in the right direction in his first season. Quarterback Jon Copeland, the conference's freshman of the year, led an offense that set program records for total offense and scoring, while the defense was one of the best in the FCS in forcing turnovers.

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LAMAR

COACH: Mike Schultz (6-5, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 7-5 overall, 6-3 Southland (3rd)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 30 spring game

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Coming off their first playoff appearance, the Cardinals must revamp the secondary. They are replacing four of the five starters and one of the two who split the other spot also graduated.

NOTABLE: The Cardinals haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1966-67. Despite the loss of starting quarterback Darrel Colbert, Jordan Hoy started three late-season games and was twice named the Southland offensive player of the week. Running back-turned-wide receiver Kendrick King also is back after being injured in the first game of the season.

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MCNEESE

HEAD COACH: Sterlin Gilbert (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Cowboys are getting acquainted with Gilbert, a Charlie Strong disciple, and his new coaching staff and schemes. The offense is expected to be up-tempo and led by quarterback Cody Orgeron.

NOTABLE: Since having a perfect regular season in 2015, the Cowboys have missed the playoffs in three straight years. The defense must replace its leader in linebacker B.J. Blunt, but defensive end Chris Livings had a five-sack game last season.

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NICHOLLS

HEAD COACH: Tim Rebowe (25-22, four seasons)

2018 RECORDS: 9-4 overall, 7-2 (Tie/1st)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (5 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: If Nicholls is vulnerable, it's in the trenches. The offensive line lost four starters and the defensive line lost four of the top six players in the rotation.

NOTABLE: Dual-threat quarterback Chase Fourcade, the 2018 Southland player of the year, returns for his senior season. While speedster Damion Jeanpiere Jr. drew the most attention, Da'Jean Dixon led the team in receptions and touchdown passes. Not to be overlooked is the Colonels must replace Lorran Fonseca, who kicked 35 field goals the last two seasons.

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NORTHWESTERN STATE

HEAD COACH: Brad Laird (5-6, first season)

2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/8th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 7-30

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (6 offense/7 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Demons won three of their final four games, but they still ranked 109th in the FCS in total defense and 97th in scoring defense. They have to develop better depth up front, where nose tackle O'Shea Jackson returns.

NOTABLE: Redshirt junior Jazz Ferguson's early departure to the NFL means three of the top four pass catchers are gone from the nation's No. 5 passing offense. Senior quarterback Shelton Eppler is thrilled to have a healthier Chris Zirkle at offensive guard.

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SAM HOUSTON STATE

HEAD COACH: K.C. Keeler (52-17, five seasons; 226-90-1 overall)

2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-4 Southland (Tie/4th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 4-April 15 (spring game on April 12)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 18 (9 offense/9 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Although the defensive statistics improved last season, the Bearkats still have to be better on that side of the ball. Run defense was an issue, but they return most of their key linemen and have added UTEP transfer Trace Mascorro. The potential is there for this to be the best defense in Keeler's tenure.

NOTABLE: The Bearkats' streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances ended in a stunning 2018 season, which should motivate this year's veteran unit. The Kats, who had reached the national semifinals in five of the previous seven seasons, want to get back to having a high-octane offense behind sophomore quarterback Ty Brock. Redshirted tackles Mitchell Watanabe and Sam Spencer return to aid in that cause.

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SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA

HEAD COACH: Frank Scelfo (4-7, one season)

2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 4-5 Southland (Tie/8th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 12-April 13

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Defensive coordinator Lance Guidry, the head coach at McNeese the last three seasons, will bring a new defensive identity. The Lions defense only ranked eighth in the Southland.

NOTABLE: After underachieving in Scelfo's first season, the Lions should be improved, but they'll have to be when they open with a strong nonconference schedule. While quarterback Chason Virgil led the Southland in passing yards, the Fresno State transfer faces competition from two other transfers, junior Cole Kelley (Arkansas) and Mason Schucker (Hutchinson Community College).

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STEPHEN F. AUSTIN

HEAD COACH: Colby Carthel (first season)

2018 RECORDS: 2-8 overall, 2-7 Southland (10th)

SPRING PRACTICES: March 25-April 27

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Everybody's blending together under Carthel, whose new staff includes offensive coordinator Matt Storm and defensive coordinator Scott Power.

NOTABLE: Carthel led Texas A&M-Commerce to the Division II national title in 2017. He signed 31 players in his first recruiting class and there will be open competition across the lineup, but the Lumberjacks still need leadership and strong play out of their senior class, including quarterback Jake Blumrick, wide receiver Tamrick Pace and cornerback Aretavious Hendrix.

Updated February 28, 2019

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