Cultural changes give Kats optimism as bounce-back bid gets underway

Joseph Brown/The ItemSam Houston State sophomore quarterback Ty Brock motions to his receivers during the first practice of fall camp on Friday at Bowers Stadium.

A season headlined by unfulfilled expectations spurred a transformative change within the Sam Houston State football program.

The Bearkats knew the status quo wasn’t enough. They were coming off a 2018 campaign in which they went 6-5 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2010. Meanwhile, the rest of the Southland Conference appeared to close the gap on the Kats — the league sent three teams to the FCS playoffs, with Incarnate Word and Lamar making their first appearances.

So as the offseason got underway, Sam Houston State wasted no time shaking up its dynamic. Fueling the change: A determined effort to show that last season was a fluke for a team that has won 86 games since 2011, the fifth-most among all Division I college football programs.

“It definitely left a bad taste in our mouth,” senior wide receiver Nathan Stewart said Friday following the Kats’ first practice of fall camp. “We all know that Sam Houston State’s standards are better than how we performed last year.”

At the forefront of the transformation has been the arrival of Parker Whiteman, the program’s first football-specific strength coach. Stewart believes the players are “10 times stronger than they were before,” with sophomore quarterback Ty Brock among the greatest beneficiaries — the College Station native says he’s put on 20 pounds of "good weight” since the end of last season, and has an improved deep ball to show for it.

“We had a very intense summer,” senior linebacker Royce See said. “Having Coach Whiteman come in challenged us every day. Football is more mental than anything, and I feel like him coming in at the perfect time helped us grow.”

Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler revealed at Southland Conference Media Day last month that he thinks this was the team’s best offseason since he arrived in 2014.

Rather than fulfilling the minimum requirements, the coach noticed his players regularly trickling into the Ron Randleman Strength and Fitness Center for extra workouts. Equally important, he saw the team start to bond together.

Keeler points to locker room issues as something that played a role in the Bearkats’ shortcomings last season. He doesn’t foresee the same problems with the current group.

“It's going to be different because it's made up of a different collection of people,” Keeler said. “Their interaction with each other, their integrity, not being selfish, their leadership ... all those things intertwine. One guy can change a locker room, in a positive or negative way.”

Brock echoed his coach’s sentiments, referencing ‘a few bad eggs’ that have been replaced with quality locker room guys. The end result has been a team that is growing as a cohesive unit, rather than splintering into offensive and defensive factions.

“We got rid of a few bad eggs that were kind of cancers to the team ... then with some of the new guys we brought in, the team chemistry is a lot closer,” Brock added. “The guys actually like to be around each other and like to hang out, and that's on both sides of the ball. I know the defensive guys a lot better than I did two years ago, or even last year.”

Junior cornerback Zyon McCollum has noticed a cultural change within the Bearkats as well, particularly from a leadership and accountability standpoint.

“A lot of camaraderie, and we’re more player-coached,” McCollum said of what’s changed since last fall’s season finale at Houston Baptist. “Coaches always preach about how they want a player-coached team, and we as a team are finally coming together to realize that. We're sticking together, building each other up and fighting for each other day-in and day-out.”

While Sam Houston State approaches the 2019 season with an abundance of optimism, Keeler is also quick to note the long road ahead.

The parity within the Southland is arguably the best it’s been in recent memory. A rigorous non-conference slate — which features road showdowns with an FBS opponent in New Mexico, as well as a North Dakota team that handed the Bearkats their first home loss in over three years last September — will not make the bounce-back bid any easier.

Motivation, however, doesn’t seem to be a question.

“The sky is the limit with where we can go, but it's going to be step-by-step,” Keeler said. “You can't get there overnight. It's going to be a lot of work, but I think this team is willing to put the work in.”