HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana football coach Ron Roberts knows his team is likely to have a target on its back heading into next season, and he’s not complaining.
In his first season with the Lions, SLU finished 5-6 overall and 5-2 in the Southland Conference, good for third in the league.
But Roberts said that’s no reason for the Lions to get complacent.
“We’ve got to get better even to do that again,” Roberts said. “We’ve got to get better, because now obviously, people are going to have their sights set on us, and they’ll be ready. So we’ve got to get better just to stay where we’re at. We want to get a lot better and improve upon what we did this year.”
“It think we made great strides forward,” Roberts continued. “We’ve just got to build on the momentum that we finished the season with and continue to build it up with recruiting and take it from there.”
SLU closed the season with a 35-16 win over Nicholls State in the River Bell Classic, capping the Lions’ sweep of the Southland Conference’s in-state teams.
It’s the first time SLU has posted wins over Nicholls, McNeese State and Northwestern State in the same season since 1972.
“I think it’s huge,” Roberts said of the in-state sweep. “I think last year, we’re trying to sell recruits on the idea that we’re going to change things. I think hopefully now what they saw we can be able to beat the teams in state (and) they can see that things are changing here, that no only do we have a quality education, but we now we have a quality football program to go with it. I think that makes us one of the most attractive schools in the state.”
While the Lions will be looking for replacements for quarterbacks Nathan Stanley and Brian Young, Roberts said a plus for the Lions heading into the offseason is the team’s youth and experience.
Freshmen Xavier Roberson (105 carries, 488 yards, 4 TDs) and Rasheed Harrell (72-376, 3 TDs) led the Lions in rushing, while junior Tony McCrea (28 receptions, 401 yards, TD) and sophomore Stanley Moore (27-370, 0 TDs) led the receiving corps, while for St. Michael standout Jeremy Meyers led the team in receiving TDs with three.
“I think when you look (at things) for next year, we’ve got a lot of guys back,” Roberts said. “Really, we’re a very young football team. That allowed us, I think, one, to continue to get better as the season went on because they haven’t reached their potential yet. And the plus is that hopefully we’re going to continue to get better in the offseason, spring practice and going into next fall, and hopefully we’re going to be a lot better football team come next August. There’s a lot of young guys that stepped up and made plays for us down the stretch, and it gives us a bright future.”
The Lions finished sixth in the SLC in total defense (387.5 yards per game), but Roberts said he was pleased with the unit’s progress during the season.
“I think we made some massive strides on the defensive side of the ball...,” Roberts said. “A couple of games there obviously that were real bad, but when you at conference statistics, our defense performed pretty well.”
But Roberts said recruiting will be key for the Lions, who must replace All-Southland Conference defensive back Robert Alford and linebacker Devan Walker, a former Catholic standout who was a second-team All-SLC pick for the Lions. Roberts said the Lions want to add some defensive linemen and defensive backs in recruiting.
“This offseason, this recruiting (season) is going to be huge, especially for the defensive side of the ball, and offense as well, but it’s going to be huge to build the defense we want to be,” Roberts said. “We want to be first. We want to be first in the conference. Who are we chasing right now? We’ve got to get those cats like Sam Houston’s got, and we’ve got to learn how to play. They’re kind of the people you put up there and say ‘This is what we’re aiming for now’, and you know, that’s them. We’ve got to learn how to play at a championship level on that side of the ball.”
Offensively, Roberts said he wants to add two running backs, ‘a couple of receivers’ and some offensive linemen.
“We’ve got a very experienced group now that’s got a lot of experience coming back, so we’re going to have a pretty good stable of 8-to-10 receivers that have got college playing experience now,” Roberts said.
“We’ve got to get some guys (on the offensive line) to create some competition in there,” he continued. “We’ve got to get some depth.”
And while the Lions achieved some lofty goals this season, Roberts said the Lions are aiming for more.
“This year was really about trying to gain some respect in this conference, respect that when we line up on Saturday that we can compete — compete with anybody,” he said. “I think we showed that, but we’re not where we want to be. I think we came out of the season, our kids are hungry, and I think they understand that. The big thing we tried to sell them in our last meeting was that we’ve got to take care of our business. You now play for an institution that expects to play for conference championships, and we expect to go to the playoffs. Understand the expectations.”