By Marc David, Abilene Reporter-News

On a 2012 Sam Houston State football team where 34 players have combined to post an amazing total of 696 starts, the student-athlete with the highest career total is offensive tackle Kaleb Hopson.

While 15 offensive and defensive Bearkats each have 20 or more career starts, the fifth-year senior from Early, Texas, heads the list after his 48th career starting assignment in the Kats' 45-42 semifinals victory at Eastern Washington that put SHSU into the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game for the second year in a row.

The Abilene Reporter-News' Marc David recently documented Hopson's success at Sam Houston the past four years:

But for a twist of fate, Hopson might have been playing for the Houston Cougars this season.

Before his senior high school year at Early, Hopson committed to the University of Houston. After the Cougars changed coaches, Hopson tried to contact the new staff to see whether his scholarship would be honored. The big offensive lineman was unable to get anyone to return his calls.

It was back to the drawing board for Hopson, a three-sport star for the Longhorns.

Sam Houston State came calling and Hopson found a home. After redshirting his first season, Hopson was inserted into the lineup when a lineman was injured shortly after halftime of the Bearkats' game with Western Illinois. He has been a starter ever since.

The past three years, Sam Houston has rolled to a 31-9 record that included a 14-1 run to the NCAA title game in 2011, an 11-3 mark this season and back-to-back Southland Conference championships.

"Our offensive line has really played well," said third-year coach Willie Fritz, who has guided the Bearkats to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. "We lost two all-Americans so it was an area we needed to find some guys. Kaleb is a four-year starter and this is his best season by far. He has really done a good job with leadership."

Hopson wasn't looking for a leadership role. But Fritz challenged him at the beginning of the season.

"He did pressure me," Hopson, 23, said. "We had three seniors on the offensive line last season and they led the whole team in general. Someone had to step up. It was a changing experience for me. I definitely had a different attitude about it."

His deeds speak louder than his words. Before the loss in the regular season finale to FBS No. 8 Texas A&M, the 'Kats (8-3) had won seven straight games since losing to Central Arkansas. During the final five games of the winning streak, Southland Conference co-champion SHSU outscored its opponents 268-34.

"We had a team meeting after the conference loss to UCA," Hopson said. "We decided we had to be more hungry, to want it more. We looked around and saw all the talent in the room and realized we were not playing to our potential. We became desperate. We wanted a chance to go to the playoffs and to win a conference title."

For Hopson, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound right tackle, December will mark the end of college and football. A criminal justice major finishing his final college course, Hopson said he has no desire to play football beyond this season.

"I don't want to go that path," Hopson said when asked about any professional football aspirations. "I want to take the family route and get a job, maybe get a job in a police department around here and eventually become a state trooper. I have played football for so many years.

"I have only a certain amount of games left. I will give it my all and hopefully we will continue to win. When it is over, I will say I tried my best. I don't think I want to continue to play after this year."

Sam Houston and North Dakota State will square off in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game for the second year in a row when the pair meet Saturday, January 5, at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco. The game, which kicks off at 12 noon, will be televised nationally on ESPN2.