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Several schools in the Southland Conference elected to opt out of a spring football season, favoring the financial payouts and immediate exposure available this fall.

Sam Houston State, the second-winningest FCS program of the past decade, elected to compete for championships instead.

The Bearkats — along with Incarnate Word, Lamar, McNeese, Nicholls, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana — will begin a six-game Southland Conference spring slate on Feb. 20, with the program seeking to secure an eighth league championship and one of 16 FCS playoff bids.

Amid a two-year postseason drought, players and coaches feel the pressure to make Sam Houston State a national title contender once again. So when the NCAA approved an abbreviated FCS postseason, set to begin in April 2021, the decision to go all-in on the spring became an obvious choice for Bearkat head coach K.C. Keeler.

“There have been some challenges, but there's no question that playing in the spring was the right way to go,” Keeler said. “We have a chance to play for a conference championship, and the conference champion moves on to the FCS playoffs. We've been in the final four in the country in five out of the last 10 years. Really, the only thing that's off our resume is a national championship.

“When I came here, that's one of the things I talked about. We want to try to be national champs, so playing a money game or two in the fall didn’t make any sense at all. I really like what our administration did. They've been really supportive and our kids are really excited to start a season.”

Bearkat players are quick to acknowledge the anguish of working all summer long, only to have their hopes of playing in the fall stripped away less than a month before their Sept. 5 opener against Tarleton State.

Senior linebacker Markel Perry, however, sees a silver lining in this pain. The Beaumont native believes the experience brought a veteran-laden Sam Houston State team even closer together — in particular, a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that ranked in the top-eight nationally in 12 categories last fall.

“We all faced adversity together,” Perry said. “We all put in work over the summer to come out and play for the fall, and to have that ripped away from us hurt. But now we're taking this time to grow and get better, and be the best we can for the spring season. I think it brought us closer together.”

Preseason all-American center Colby Thomas echoes his teammate’s sentiments.

“Just the camaraderie we have,” the senior offensive lineman said of what’s impressed him most about the team this offseason. “Just coming together and knowing what we have to do in the face of whatever is going on right now. You never know what's certain and what's not, but I like how we've all come together to attack it.”

‘SPRING BALL IN THE FALL’

Sam Houston State completed its first padded practice since early March last Saturday, and will use the next few weeks to begin preparation for the postponed season.

With the bulk of spring practice getting wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bearkats recognize the opportunity ahead to improve their strengths and shore up any uncertainties. Keeler will be paying extra attention to the offensive line — a group with four new starters — and junior quarterback Eric Schmid — who spurred optimism when healthy last year, but missed the bulk of league play due to injuries.

“This spring ball in the fall is a great opportunity to get some things gelling,” the coach said. “With all the guys we have back defensively, we're pretty far ahead there — and the skill kids on offense are as good as we've had. It's just the quarterback getting more reps, because he didn't really get a lot of reps last year. When he played, he played great, but it's about getting more reps there and rebuilding that offensive line. If we can rebuild the offensive line, we'll be as good as we've ever been.”

OFFSEASON STANDOUTS

Following Saturday’s practice, Keeler acknowledged that several key pieces from last year’s team have turned heads with their performance throughout an unusual offseason — including a senior trio on the defensive line.

“Joe Wallace has transformed his body,” the coach said. “He's an all-American-level player to begin with, and he's made himself even better. Same thing with Trace Mascorro, and Jahari Kay too. Jahari had a good season last year, and we think he can have an even better season this year, so we have a pretty salty defensive line.”

The coach also pointed to Perry and junior Trevor Williams as players that have embraced enhanced roles at linebacker, a position that lost senior leaders Royce See and Hunter Brown to graduation.

As for the offense, Thomas notes that Schmid has taken significant strides behind center following an injury-riddled 2019 campaign.

“Just mentally,” Thomas said of Schmid’s greatest improvement since last season. “I feel like he's making smarter decisions. He's always had the attributes to play quarterback and be good at it, and I feel like the mental part is really starting to come together.”

Keeler also had high praise for a backfield that plans to feature sophomore Noah Smith, who rotated between running back, receiver and wildcat quarterback as a true freshman last year, in a more prevalent way.

“I think I have three phenomenal running backs,” the coach added. “Noah Smith gives us the versatility to play him at slot, play him out wide or play him at running back. Donovan obviously had a great year last year, so we feel pretty good at that spot.”

BACK TO PROMINENCE

Any conversation on the state of Sam Houston State football cannot begin without a brutal reminder of the program’s recent struggles. After reaching the FCS semifinals five times from 2011-17, the Bearkats have produced a 13-10 record with zero playoff appearances over the past two years.

Playing in the spring presents the only opportunity to buck this trend of mediocrity. It also allows the Bearkats to continue pursuing an elusive, longtime goal: their first Division I national championship.

“We haven't had a chance the last two seasons,” Perry said. “Coming back and grinding as hard as we have, I believe we'll have a chance to go out there and grab the championship.”

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