Taking over Sam Houston’s nationally-ranked football program as the University’s 15th head coach last January, K. C. Keeler knew he faced a number of challenges.

“First, there was national signing day a week after I took the job,” Keeler said. “Then I had to hire a coaching staff. And, finally, we had to get to know the team. It was a whirlwind of activity.”

Learning who were the team’s leaders was a key element in the process.

“With all so many of our staff new to the program, we didn’t yet know the personnel,” Keeler said. “We knew we had some great kids in the locker room because of the success Sam Houston has had the past three years. We wanted the players to buy in quickly to what we’re trying to do.

“So we asked the players from each class to choose the best leaders and formed a Football Leadership Council from those they selected. I was so impressed with how the first leadership council meetings went and how the young men engaged. This is the most engaged group I’ve been around in 20 years of coaching.”

Two of the seniors on council are running back Keshawn Hill and safety Michael Wade. Both are preseason All-Southland Conference honorees and expected to be top players in the Southland Conference.

Wade, a health major from Arp, Texas, is Sam Houston’s leading returning tackler with 102 stops and two interceptions last year. Hill, a two-time Academic All-Southland selection as a general business major, has totaled 2,312 all-purpose yards during the past three seasons as a runner and kickoff return specialist.

“We’re doing some different things this year, but we’re on the right track,” Wade said.  “Workouts and gone well and everything is positive.”

Both have found the transition to senior leadership came quickly even though the Bearkats have lost exceptional players like Timothy Flanders, Brian Bell and Richard Sincere. Those three and others played major roles in the team’s 34-10 record and three consecutive playoff appearances since 2011.

“We lost some outstanding leaders, but it’s just natural that as seniors, we step up,” Hill said. “We’re running a different style offense this year, but football is football.  Coach Keeler is a proven winner. He and his staff have the same goals all the players do.”

With 44 lettermen returning for the 2014 season including just nine starters, there have been a lot of new faces in preseason camp for the Bearkats this month.

“The guys are working together. We’re here to win,” Wade said. “Adjusting to the new defense has been challenging but football is still football. We lost several starters, but we have a lot of people who played a bunch last year. We’re on the right track. The coaching staff and the players are on the same page.”

Sam Houston begins play at Eastern Washington on Saturday, August 23, in the FCS Kickoff on EPSN. Then the team opens its home schedule with Bearkat Orange Out against Alabama State at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium Saturday, August 30.

The Bearkats won Southland Conference titles in 2011 and 2012 and finished third last year. Sam Houston is one of only three programs to earn FCS playoff berths each of the past three seasons.

Keeler stresses how important leadership and attitude are to the team’s chances for success in 2014.

“We’re not going to lose games this year because of talent,” Keeler said. “We may not be as talented as every team we play this year, but we’re not going to be at a deficiency because of talent. It’s going to be factors like leadership, playing without mistakes, buying into our system and giving that extra effort every day."

Other members of the football leadership council include Myke Chatman, A. J. Davis, Tristen Eche, De'Chaar Greer, Donald Jackson III, Jared Johnson, Don King III, Gary Lorance, Dustin Moehligh, Chance Nelson, John Rodrique, Ricky Smith, Sammy Webb IV, Stephen Williams and Shane Young.

“We’ve hired some great coaches who are even better people. Our job as a coaching staff is to challenge the players and take them to a higher level, a place they can’t take themselves.

 “This team will look a lot different from past groups. We’ve thrown a lot of new things at the players during the spring and preseason camp. But there’s an old term I’ve told the kids, if we play clean, we can win. We have enough talent here that if we avoid mistakes, we’ll win a lot of football games.”