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Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler addresses the crowd on Thursday during Southland Conference football media day in Houston.

HOUSTON — The Sam Houston State Bearkats aren’t mincing words when it comes to turning the page on a 6-5 season, one that left them sitting at home come playoff time for the first time in eight years.

Now, they enter the 2019 season with an abundance of motivation — something that was made clear on Thursday at Southland Conference football media day at the Hilton Houston Post Oak by the Galleria.

“Competing, and competing at a high level,” said senior offensive lineman Tyler Edwards of the focus for his final season in Huntsville. “It's our last season, so hopefully we can go out with a bang. We're settling for nothing short of a national championship.”

Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler admitted at the podium that the team “wasn’t a great locker room last year,” something that he believes played a role in their shortcomings. The coach noted that there has been a significant turnaround, however, and proceeded to rave about the Kats’ offseason — in particular the impact of adding a football-specific strength coach in Parker Whiteman.

Senior linebacker Hunter Brown echoes Keeler’s sentiments, and hopes to play a vital role in righting the ship before he leaves campus.

“I'm ready to show the guys that are freshmen how we do it, because last year wasn't a good example,” Brown said. “Getting back to our old ways would be a great way to close out my career.”

Mike Dare moves into coaching role

Keeler told The Item prior to taking the podium that senior quarterback Mike Dare has moved into a coaching role for 2019, after recently undergoing a season-ending medical procedure.

With Dare moving into his new role, returning starter Ty Brock is competing with fellow sophomore Eric Schmid for the starting quarterback job.

“Both of those guys had great springs,” Keeler said, “so we’re excited.”

Kats see ‘enormous growth’ in Whiteman’s first offseason

The Bearkats are well aware that the Southland Conference has closed the gap, evidenced by Lamar and Incarnate Word reaching the FCS playoffs last season for the first time ever.

“People have made a concerted effort to catch us, and I think it's been good because now we've made a concerted effort to get back on top,” Keeler said.

One of the key cogs of that effort to get back on top: the addition of football-specific strength coach Parker Whiteman.

“It's huge,” Brown said. “He is football and football only. He has no other job but to be with us. He's there every day, all day. He's focused on getting us to be the strongest, fastest and healthiest people on the field. That's a tremendous help and a huge asset to our program.”

“I've seen enormous growth since the day we got him,” Keeler added. “I think what you're really going to see two or three years down the road is how much the freshmen we just brought in have transformed.”

Brock makes notable strides

While Keeler has yet to name his team’s starting quarterback, all signs point toward the job being Brock’s to lose.

After passing for 2,417 yards with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a redshirt freshman last season, the 6-foot-4 College Station native has enjoyed a productive offseason. Brock’s deep ball showed significant improvement in the spring, with Keeler noting on Thursday that his signal-caller has taken full advantage of Whiteman’s presence on the staff.

“The quarterback spot is still a little bit up in the air, but if anyone has benefited from the full-time football strength coach, it's been Ty,” Keeler said. “He's up to 222 pounds, and he's looked phenomenal throwing the football this summer. You can just see it, he's a full-grown man now. He needed a full year in the weight room, and he got that full year.

“The quarterback spot, just because we had lived with Jeremiah Briscoe for the last three years, it might still be a little bit of a question. But, I thought Eric Schmid and Ty both had outstanding springs. When you look at the growth in Ty, in terms of what has happened this summer, I think he's going to be ready to go.”

Running game poised to be a strength

After battling depth issues at running back last season, with then-sophomore Kyran Jackson serving as the only significant backfield threat on the roster, the Bearkats have made a 180-degree turn heading into their 2019 campaign.

They added a former Under Armour All-American in University of Texas transfer Toneil Carter, who Keeler says has pushed Jackson to even further heights. The coach also points to a pair of underclassmen in Alex and Donovan Williams that have progressed immensely after receiving their first collegiate action last year.

With improved depth on the offensive line, which was ravaged by injuries in 2018, Sam Houston State’s strength could very well be its ground attack.

“We were injured last year, but we don't want to make that an excuse at all,” Edwards said. “As an offensive line, we're motivated to be the engine of the offense. We want to be the reason we have success, whether that's run blocking or pass blocking. We have Toneil coming in, he's a beast, and Alex has stepped up as well.”