The 2017 Sam Houston State Bearkat football season is nearly upon us, and leading up to the August 27 kickoff vs Richmond, Bearkat Athletics will be taking a look at this year’s Sam Houston roster.

This is the fifth of an eight-part preview, position-by-position of this year’s squad. The Kats were selected as unanimous favorites to reclaim the SLC crown and boast five preseason all-Americans on the roster.

Returning: Tyler Tezeno, Mitchell Watanabe, Tristan Wendt, Eric David, Sam Spencer, Tyler Edwards
Newcomers: Zack Kinninger, Ty Barrett, Colby Thomas

HUNTSVILLE – In front of every great offense you can find a great offensive line paving the way. The Sam Houston State Bearkats are no different in that regard, and even with three starters gone from its front five, they look to be in good shape heading into the season opener.

The Bearkat offense averaged nearly 50 points and 550 yards per game a year ago, and return eight of 11 starters; however, each of those three starters lost come from the offensive line.

But there is plenty of quality with each of the two returning starters – Tyler Tezeno and Mitchell Watanabe – who are both preseason all-conference selections, while a slew of talented newcomers seems primed to step in and keep the dynamic Bearkat offense firing on all cylinders in 2017.

Last season Bearkat quarterbacks dropped back more than 460 times during its 11-0 regular season, taking only eight sacks in those games. That work by the line helped Sam Houston quarterbacks complete nearly 61 percent of their passes for the year, while also helping open up holes for a running game that averaged 179 yards per game on the ground.

Along the way senior center Bridge Blount was named the league’s Offensive Lineman of the Year, making him the second straight Bearkat to win the honor, while Tezeno was named to the all-SLC first team. 

“We have some chemistry that we haven’t had in the past couple of year,” offensive line coach Bart Tatum said. “Nothing against the guys that graduated, but this group has just raised the bar. They do little things related to conditioning and strength that make a huge difference. This group we can go to war with them and they won’t let us down.”

This year Tezeno is back at right guard and is garnering some early attention as both a preseason all-SLC first team choice and a third team preseason all-American by STATS FCS. Add in Watanabe, who will shift to left tackle this season, and the Kats sport two big pieces back to set the line’s foundation this year.

“Mitchell has played extremely well up to this point and I seriously consider him a guy who is going to continue to grow,” Tatum said. “He’s been that way since he got here. Tyler Tezeno looks just like he did as an all-conference player last year. He was first team all-league last year and he’s that kind of player again. We’ll stay on him, but we feel like he’s someone who has really grown and gotten better as well.”

At 6-4 and 340 pounds, Tezeno transferred from West Virginia following the 2014 season and has started each of his last 19 games after taking over at guard for the final six games of his sophomore year. Meanwhile, Watanabe started eight games last season alongside Tezeno at right tackle, and will make the transition to the left tackle spot this season.

Watanabe stands at 6-4 and 330 pounds himself and started the 2016 season at tackle before missing five games with a leg injury. He returned to reclaim his spot for the final five games of the year, including the playoffs, and Tatum feels as though he is a natural fit to move into a role at left tackle as a junior.

In addition to that pair, the Kats feel very comfortable in filling in the rest of the holes on the line in 2016. Junior Tristan Wendt looks to have the inside track to replacing Blount at center, while Eric David and Sam Spencer are the front runners to slide in at right tackle and guard, respectively.

“We made a conscious decision to get what we feel like are the five best guys on the field, and to do that we had to move Tristan (Wendt) to center,” Tatum said. “He’s an absolute joy to coach, just like the great centers that we have had in the past. And having him at center allows us to put Mitchell at left tackle, where he belongs.”

Tatum likes what he has seen in David and Spencer early in camp as well. David got into five games as a redshirt freshman last season and, according to Tatum, brings a high combination of strength and athleticism to the line while Spencer brings a 6-4 frame and a hard-nosed mentality that the coaches feel will serve him well.

The Kats also like what they have seen from Tyler Edwards, a 6-4, 320-pound sophomore who Tatum says has both the frame and mindset that could eventually project to the next level. 

Along with returning redshirt freshman Jude Richardson, the Kats also added a pair of transfers in Ty Barrett and Zack Kinninger along with freshman Colby Thomas who all are expected to see time this season. Barrett (TCU) and Kinninger (Fresno State) each saw time on the field as redshirt freshmen at Division I programs, while Thomas was a key part of one of the top high school programs in the state (Manvel HS) each of the past two seasons.

“Zack is better than I ever thought he could be, and has exceeded my wildest expectations to this point,” Tatum said. “Colby is kind of a utility guy for us. He can play center and probably one of these days he will probably be our center. He’s a guy that we’ve already played at center, guard and tackle on both the left and right. He’s a smart enough kid to be able to do that.”