Excitement has steadily been building surrounding the Sam Houston State football program ever since Willie Fritz was hired as the new head coach last December.
So far, Fritz has said and done the right things and the players are really buying into what he has to sell. The Bearkats fans are also jumping on board and there is a lot of optimism that the program is heading in the right direction.
Fritz is the first to admit there is a lot of work to be done and it could take a while for everything to come together.
The reason for this is because the Bearkats had the most player turnover from one season to the next in their NCAA Division I football history. Only 30 of the 62 lettermen on last year's 5-6 squad return. That's four more lettermen lost than the previous high of 28 in 1993 when the Kats went 2-5 in Southland action.
"We have so many new guys that it is almost like starting over again," Fritz said. "We are having to teach a lot because there are four or five positions where we need some newcomers and freshmen to step forward and play for us. That is the big thing I'm looking forward to in the next few weeks."
The head coach definitely was impressed by the fitness level of the team when players reported August 6.
"We only had 12 guys out of 84 who didn't make their fitness run the first day," Fritz said. "That shows the type of summer conditioning program we have. Coach (Kyle) Speer and coach (Brian) Neal did a great job with our guys this summer. Most of the guys are pretty darn fit and in shape. I feel like that will be an advantage for us, to be in better shape than our opponents. We are really going to work hard on conditioning."
The players are excited about being in camp as well.
"I really like this coaching staff," sophomore defensive back Robert Shaw said. "Everything was organized. When I first got here, we really weren't organized. People were just going through the motions. This year, everybody is on the same page and we are looking like a team."
As preseason camp unfolds over the next few weeks, there is going to be some fierce competition to win starting roles and earn playing time. Some positions are in good shape and others are a little shaky. As people found out during spring practice, no one is guaranteed a starting job and the newcomers who just showed up will have an equal opportunity to secure a spot on the depth chart.
But one thing is for sure, Fritz and his staff are going put the best players on the field.
Preseason football camp continues at Bowers Stadium through the opening day of classes at Sam Houston. At that time, the team will resume its regular 3:30 p.m. practice time. Through a series of scrimmages the next two weeks the coaching staff will begin to develop a two-deep line-up.
Here is a brief look at what to expect:
This is arguably one of the strongest areas the Bearkat have returning this season. The secondary was young last season and took its hits, but played the best it did all year toward the end of the season. There are four returning starters and several others who saw significant action in 2009.
There will be a new starter with the loss of Luke McCall, but there is some talent at this position. Junior Will Henry had a breakout sophomore season, earning honorable mention All-SLC honors with 71 tackles and a team-leading 11 tackles for losses. Junior Kash David moves into a starting role and has a ton of potential. Sophomores Eric Fieilo and Darius Taylor showed flashes as true freshmen in 2009.
The Bearkats will miss guard Hunter Schmidt, who started every game for four years. The offensive line struggled in the spring, but juniors Travis Watson and Chris Crockett, who both started in 2008, return from injuries which caused them to miss last season. There are spots up for grabs, but there is some depth with experienced players.
Sophomore Miguel Antonio has a strong leg and did a good job kicking last season for the Bearkats. He made 12 of 20 field goals and was 37 of 38 on extra points. The big question is who is going to be the punter. Well, Matt Foster, an Australian native, transferred from Purdue and if the first day of practice was an indication, the Bearkats will be in good shape. He has a big-time leg. As for kick returning, Blinn transfer Chad Froechtenicht had two punt returns of 60 and 84 yards for touchdowns last season.
This has been a huge strength for the Bearkats in the past, producing All-Americans such as Keith Heinrich, Corey Roberts and Blake Martin in recent years. Junior T.J. Jones and sophomore J.D. Standley are looking to be the next in line.
There are only two wide receivers on the team who caught passes in 2009. Sophomore Melvis Pride, who also returned kicks, had seven catches for 53 yards and junior Brandon Closner had three grabs for 94 yards. Redshirt freshman Richard Sincere had a strong spring and transfers Grant Merritt, Seth Patterson, Trey Diller and Chad Froechtenicht will try to move up the depth chart.
This position battle is probably the most anticipated. Senior Bryan Randolph won the job in the spring and will go head to head with Auburn transfer Tyrik Rollison and junior Greg Sprowls for the starting spot in preseason camp. Rollison has the credentials to be a special player, but he hasn't seen the field in a year.
This is a big question mark heading into the season. The rest of the defense has the potential to have a strong season, but the big boys up front need to step it up. Heading out of the spring, Coty Gatewood and Eddie Decambre are penciled in as starting defensive ends and J.T. Cleveland looks to see action on the interior. The Bearkats did get some help in Utah State transfer Jervon Graves.
The past few seasons running back hasn't been a problem, but the Bearkats don't have a single ball carrier that was on the team in 2009. This was one of the positions the coaching staff was really hoping one of the incoming freshmen would step in and take over when they were recruited. The good news is that SHSU got a transfer from Louisiana Tech. D.J. Morrow carried the ball 31 times for 150 yards and a score as a freshman last season.
Sam Houston will hold its first full-contact scrimmage Thursday night at Bowers Stadium. Preseason camp will run to the opening day of classes August 25. The Bearkats expect to hold four full-contact scrimmages during preseason work.
Sam Houston will open the 2010 slate Saturday, Sept. 4 against the Baylor Bears at Waco. The first home game will be Saturday, Sept. 25 when Gardner-Webb visits Bowers Stadium for Bearkat "Family Weekend."
The game Sept. 25 will feature a guest appearance by the Houston Texans Cheerleaders, a fireworks display and special halftime activities.
Other home games will be Oct. 16 (Homecoming) vs. Southeastern Louisiana, Nov. 6 vs. McNeese State and Nov. 20 vs. Texas State. The final three home games will kickoff at 2 p.m.
Season tickets for Bearkat football at Bowers Stadium are available through the new exciting "2-2-2" offer, order your tickets now by going to the Bearkat tickets page on www.gobearkats.com or call (936) 294-1729.
The "2-2-2" offer also includes two corner tickets to the "Battle of the Piney Woods" game with Stephen F. Austin at Reliant Stadium in Houston on October 23.
Fans also may visit the Sam Houston athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House located in the south end zone of Bowers Stadium. Ticket office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.