The 2018 Sam Houston State Bearkat football season is nearly upon us, with Coach K.C. Keeler’s group set to open up the year on September 8 vs Prairie View at Bowers Stadium.
This is the fifth of an eight-part preview, position by position of this year’s squad, leading up to the 2018 season opener.
OFFENSIVE LINE NOTABLES
Key Returners: Mitchell Watanabe, Tristan Wendt, Eric David, Sam Spencer, Tyler Edwards, Luke Melton, Ty Barrett, Zack Kinninger, Jude Richardson
Key Newcomers: Matt Burrell, Brian Roy, Peyton Fifield, Brandon Kemper
HUNTSVILLE – Despite losing a number of key skill position players on offense, the Sam Houston State Bearkats can rest assured that it will still be business as usual for an offensive line that returns the bulk of its starters in 2018.
Now under the tutelage of offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton who joins the Kats from Bucknell after a career in the NFL that included a Super Bowl XLIII championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bearkat offensive line projects to be in great shape to once again lead the way for a Sam Houston offense that still brings back plenty of weapons to be one of the most potent in all of the FCS.
The Kats placed a league-high three players on the preseason all-Southland Conference team – Mitchell Watanabe, Eric David and Tristan Wendt – and also bring back Sam Spencer and Tyler Edwards to round out the primary returners. Watanabe, David, Wendt and Spencer all started each of the Kats’ 14 games a year ago while Edwards rotated with former all-SLC right guard Tyler Tezeno and received regular playing time throughout the year.
Behind that core group Sam Houston’s offense was able to lead the nation in both total offense and scoring for the third straight year, becoming the first FCS program to do so since Portland State achieved the same feat in 1979, 1980 and 1981 – the first three seasons after Division I split to I-A and I-AA.
“We think we have a group that can be a physical offensive line,” head coach K.C. Keeler said. “It might be the best offensive line I’ve ever had. Definitely the best since I’ve been here, but maybe the best I’ve ever had. The great thing is that we have depth on the offensive line, which will create some great competition.”
Watanabe headlines the group at left tackle and at 6-4, 335 pounds still brings the footwork and athleticism needed to possibly play at the next level. He enters the year having been a starter all four years as a Bearkat and protected the blind side for the Kats last season.
He earned first team all-SLC honors in 2017 and this season enters with multiple preseason all-America honors.
“Mitchell is the best offensive line recruit I’ve had,” Keeler said. “And he’s played like it as well. He’s able to play anywhere on the line, but to have someone like that at a key spot as left tackle is a big key for us.”
Along with Watanabe, David and Wendt are projected to enter the season at left guard and center, giving Sam Houston a let side of the line that is made up solely of preseason all-SLC choices. Edwards and Spencer round out the fold at right guard and tackle, but the Kats will also have a number of other guys ready to step in and carry the load for an offense that has routinely averaged between 80 and 90 snaps per game under Keeler.
One of the main additions to this year’s team is Matt Burrell, a 6-3, 3-5-pound native of Virginia who spent the last three years at Ohio State. He still has two years of eligibility left as he joins the Kats coming off a season where he played in 12 of 14 games in 2017 for the Buckeyes.
“We are still trying to figure out where best to fit Matt in,” Keeler said. “He will definitely get some snaps at center, but the great thing about him is that he can play all five spots. Athletically he gives us a lot of options.”
Sam Houston will also be looking to work sophomore Colby Thomas into the fold. As a true freshman Thomas saw time on the line, primarily at center, but profiles as someone who Keeler and his staff feel could develop into a potential all-league player during his career. He can play multiple spots on the line, but will likely profile as a guard as his career progresses.
Additionally, Zack Kinninger and Ty Barrett each return for their second stints at Sam Houston after transferring in from Division I schools prior to 2017 while Jude Richardson and redshirt freshman Luke Melton could also find themselves in the rotation.
Keeler also addressed the future of the offensive line in the latest signing class, bringing in three linemen – Brian Roy, Peyton Fifield and Brandon Kemper – giving the Kats plenty of depth as 2018 approaches.