Project Redhawks: After highs and lows, Southeast landed 4-7 in Samuel's first year

Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Southeast Missouri State's Jeff Steemer, left, tackled Tennessee Tech quarterback Lee Sweeney during Saturday's season-ending loss at Houck Stadium. Steemer was part of a senior-dominate defensive line which must be reconstructed next season. Southeast had 25 seniors on this year's 4-7 team. (Don Frazier)

He would like to have finished with at least a few more wins, which could realistically have happened.

But all in all, Tony Samuel came away relatively pleased with his first season as Southeast Missouri State's head football coach.

Samuel believes he and his staff began to lay the foundation for a winning program, even though the Redhawks (4-7, 2-6 Ohio Valley Conference) lost six of their final seven games.

"This season was a real high-low," Samuel said Monday, two days after the Redhawks finished the campaign with a 32-29 home loss to Tennessee Tech, after they led 29-6 late in the third quarter.

"From going ahead and planning into the future, to do what we needed to do, that was a real positive. I wish we could have won about three or four more games, especially for the seniors."

In addition to wasting Saturday's big lead, the Redhawks were in OVC losses to the end against Eastern Kentucky (27-21) and co-champion Tennessee-Martin (28-14). Southeast held halftime leads in both games.

"We had a shot at winning those games," Samuel said. "It was a mixed emotion kind of year. For the future, I think it's bright, but we still have to go out and get players."

That's no doubt the biggest task Samuel and his assistants face as they try to revitalize a program that has had just two winning seasons since moving up to Division I-AA in 1991.

While Samuel did not inherit a team bulging with talent -- the Redhawks went 2-9 overall and 2-6 in the OVC during Tim Billings' final season in 2005 -- the fact remains that a majority of his top players this year were seniors.

Southeast loses 25 seniors, many of whom were starters.

While senior quarterback Kevin Ballatore did not have imposing numbers, he still took the majority of the snaps this season.

All of the Redhawks' top wide receivers were also seniors, as were two starting offensive linemen.

Defensively, Southeast's front four consisted primarily of seniors, led by All-American candidate Edgar Jones at end.

Jones leads the nation in sacks per game and ranks fourth in tackles for loss. Despite missing Saturday's finale with an ankle injury, he piled up 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss.

Another senior end, Kyle Hunt, was second to Jones on the team in sacks with four and tackles for loss with 11.5. Yet another senior, tackle Jeff Steemer, was third in sacks with three.

Southeast's leading tackler was a junior -- linebacker Adam Casper had 108 stops to rank 27th nationally, and he is eighth nationally in solo tackles -- but the Redhawks lose their second-leading tackler. Senior linebacker Seth Harrell, a Jackson product, had 74 stops.

Losing an All-American

Another key graduation loss is two-time All-American punter David Simonhoff, who should make it three in a row this year. Simonhoff's 44.8-yard average ranks second nationally.

"We have some positions that have to be filled immediately," Samuel said. "Our offensive and defensive lines have to be shored up. We graduated pretty much our entire defensive line.

"We need some outside linebackers/slash safeties. Quarterback is a very high priority, and we graduated all our wide receivers."

While sophomore Markus Mosley saw limited action at quarterback, a possibility for next year is Houston Lillard. Samuel will almost certainly bring in at least one or two high-level type quarterbacks who can compete for the position.

Lillard, who transferred to Southeast during the summer from Raney Junior College in California, missed the entire season after having ACL surgery in September.

"We're hoping to have him for spring ball," Samuel said.

While Southeast loses so many seniors, they also had quite a few young players fill key roles, including a host of true freshmen -- particularly in the secondary -- who were forced into action.

"Given the time we had, I thought we had a great [first recruiting] class," Samuel said. "You hate to play so many freshmen, but we didn't really have a choice. You saw a lot of glimpses out of those guys.

"You really like to redshirt all your freshmen, and we were able to redshirt some."

Samuel said he expects to sign about 10 or 12 players in late December, when mid-semester junior college transfers and prep school products can join the program and be on hand to participate in spring practice. High school seniors can't sign until February.

Samuel said he also hopes to add a few Division I-A transfers at a later time, although he said the foundation of a program still has to be laid through freshmen.

According to Samuel, Southeast has some I-A transfers already enrolled in school and poised to participate in spring drills, although he declined to name them.

"We've got a couple sitting on campus and we'll bring in a few more, but you have to be careful bringing in I-A guys," Samuel said. "You have to make sure your high school nucleus is solid if you want to build this thing right. The quick fix, I think you can get hurt that way."

Samuel pointed to Tennessee-Martin as a prime example of the ideal way to build a program. The Skyhawks brought in a strong freshmen class four years ago, took their lumps the first two seasons, improved to 6-5 in 2005, and this year won their first OVC title.

"I don't think they brought in a lot of I-A transfers," Samuel said. "They pretty much did it with a freshmen class."

Samuel said he expects to bring in quite a few impact players for next season. Add that to the returning talent, which he feels good about, and he thinks the Redhawks will become OVC contenders in 2007.

"I think our recruiting is off to a good start with the people we're talking to," he said. "I expect us to be a contender next year ... we'll contend."

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