shsu defense

Sam Houston State defensive linemen Jahari Kay, left, and Joe Wallace bring down a ball carrier during last year's home game against Oklahoma Panhandle State at Bowers Stadium.

At the start of spring practice, days before the COVID-19 pandemic began to alter the sports world as we knew it, Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler remarked that “rebuilding the offensive line is going to be the single most important part” in the Bearkats’ pursuit of a championship.

As the Aug. 7 start of training camp inches closer, senior leader and preseason all-American center Colby Thomas — SHSU’s lone returning starter on the O-line — is optimistic in the group’s ability to meet this challenge.

“I've been really impressed,” Thomas said. “I feel like the offensive line room mentality is just 'Work, work, work.' We do like to have fun and talk to each other, and we enjoy the camaraderie of things, but at the same time we know when we have to put our head down and get to work.

“That's what we're all about, so it hasn't been a drop-off. I feel like if everybody is working hard and getting better every day, we're going to be just fine.”

Despite losing four seniors from last year’s starting O-line, Keeler doesn’t recognize talent as an issue for the position group.

The Bearkats have added several transfers that could make an immediate impact up front, including Kevin Brown (Riverside CC), Prince Pines (Baylor) and Migel Garcia (Maine) — all of which are 6-foot-4 or taller, and on average over 350 pounds. The coach also has high expectations for returners like Eleasah Anderson, Peyton Fifield, Walter Harris, Moses Johnson and Jalen North, as well freshmen Will Jones and D’Ary Patton.

Now, for a group that hasn’t even done face-to-face contact drills against a defense yet, much less simulate live-game competition, the greatest challenge is developing on-field chemistry — and doing so in a timely fashion.

“When I'm out there watching us go through stuff, I remark how good the offensive line looks,” Keeler said. “We have two of the best freshmen I've ever seen. These guys are going to be really, really good football players. And then I have to remind myself that they're not blocking anybody. On air we look pretty damn good. But it's going to be more about the coordination and getting them working as one unit.

“Coach Stapleton and I were texting last night about this. The talent is there, it's just a matter of if they gel and how long it takes — and can we win football games while they're in the process of gelling. The ability is there, it's just a lot of new faces and guys that haven't played together. But the good news is, that group is there.”

The Bearkats’ success on defense will likely hinge on their play in the trenches as well.

Sam Houston State brings back all of its key pieces on the D-line, including the senior trio of Southland Conference newcomer of the Year Trace Mascorro, Joe Wallace and Jahari Kay, as well as freshman all-American Jevon Leon.

This group played a driving force in the Bearkats leading the FCS in total defense, rushing defense, third-down defense and tackles for loss, while ranking in the top-eight in the country in eight other categories. If you ask Wallace, however, the key to their prolific performance was the coaching staff — led by defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin.

“We have some great players, don’t get me wrong, but it's our coaches,” Wallace said. “Our coaches were great coming up with the schemes, teaching us the schemes and making sure we knew every week could be our last game. They kept reminding us that football isn't easy. It's a tough guy sport, and that's something that we all listened to.

“We bought into what Coach Carlin was coaching. He instilled it in our brain, and we were able to put it on the football field and have a great year. I don't take anything away from my dudes, but I feel like Coach Carlin deserves all the praise for that one.”

Wallace, who transferred from Texas Tech prior to last season, points to the Bearkats’ chemistry as what sets them apart from other teams as they chase a Southland Conference title and national championship.

“The biggest thing is our bond,” he said. “I don't think many teams in the country have as strong of a bond as we have. Our team truly loves spending time with each other. There aren't a lot of individuals, we do a lot of stuff together — and it's not forced. Guys are really calling each other brothers ... and it's so surprising how the dudes here take care of each other.

“I tell my guys every day, 'I really, truly value y'all, and appreciate y'all for showing me how that family culture is supposed to be.' That's the biggest thing that's going to make us different. I know we work hard, our coaches work hard and we've put in the time, but that bond that we have is going to be the key.”