Southeast Missouri State University coach Tim Billings marvels at how far Steve Roberts has taken Arkansas State's program in such a short period of time.
"He's brought in some really good players and really improved that program," Billings said. "They've got a very good football team."
So good, in fact, that Billings can think of numerous opponents he'd rather have his struggling team face right now. Southeast (0-2) and ASU (1-1) square off in a battle of Indians at 6 p.m. today in Jonesboro, Ark. It will be ASU's homecoming game.
"They're a lot better than somebody we'd like to play right now," Billings said. "It's going to be a really big challenge for us."
A much bigger challenge, according to Billings, than the other Division I-A opponent Southeast faced this year. The Indians opened the season by losing 17-3 at Ohio but played the Bobcats on mostly even terms.
"They'll be a lot better than Ohio," Billings said.
In Roberts' first season at ASU last year, he led the Indians to a 6-7 record -- including 3-3 in the Sun Belt Conference -- for their second-best season since moving up to Division I-A in 1992.
"We've made some progress, but we still have a long way to go to become the program we want to be," Roberts said.
If its first two games are any indication, this season could be a strong one for ASU, which expects to contend for the Sun Belt title.
A strong defense
ASU held Texas A&M to 257 yards of offense and trailed by just eight points late in the game before dropping its opener 26-11 on the road.
Then last Saturday, the Indians rushed for 437 yards and had 527 yards of total offense during a 63-6 destruction of visiting Tennessee-Martin. They led 42-0 at halftime and 56-0 after three quarters.
"As a coach, you don't think you're ever where you should be," Roberts said. "But we're coming along. We played well at Texas A&M."
ASU's offense is spearheaded by junior quarterback Elliott Jacobs, who passed for more than 1,700 yards last year and is as dangerous with his feet as with his arm. Against Tennessee-Martin, he rushed for 127 yards on just four carries and passed for 90 yards in barely two quarters of play.
Despite graduating Danny Smith, who rushed for a school-record 1,390 yards last season, ASU has plenty of dangerous tailbacks, led by Antonio Warren, who gained 554 yards a year ago.
"They've got a very good quarterback and some excellent running backs," Billings said.
But it's on defense where ASU appears particularly stout. After shutting down Texas A&M's offense, the Indians did the same to Tennessee-Martin, allowing just 253 yards.
Leading the defense are tackles Jon Bradley and Corey Williams, a pair of 300-pounders who were both first-team all-Sun Belt last year and are considered All-American candidates. Bradley had nine quarterback sacks last season despite missing nearly four full games with an ankle injury. Williams was right behind with eight sacks.
"Their defense is really strong. I'm really impressed with the way they run around and hit you. They pretty much shut Texas A&M down," Billings said. "Those two defensive linemen are NFL-caliber players.
"They're one of the most improved teams I've seen. No question, they'll challenge for the Sun Belt title."
Roberts has high hopes of that being true, but before ASU begins to think about the league race, he wants to make sure his team doesn't overlook Division I-AA Southeast. He doesn't think that will be a problem, considering the Indians' talent and the fact they upset Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee State last year, which came after a somewhat shaky 2-2 start and paved the way for Southeast's breakthrough 8-4 season.
"What they did against Middle Tennessee is a part of it, but after our players watch film, it doesn't take long to get their respect," Roberts said. "SEMO is very well coached and they have some great athletes. We have to be very prepared for this game."
Jacobs told the Jonesboro Sun that Southeast has ASU's respect.
"It's a I-AA team that could really scare you. They've got a lot of good players, real good players," Jacobs said. "They're going to come in here thinking they could win, just like last year when they beat Middle. It was a big win for their school. It jump-started their season and I'm sure they're looking forward to doing it to us, and we can't allow that." Noteworthy
***Southeast will have a makeshift secondary today. Safety Mike Miller will miss his second straight game with a knee injury and cornerback Marco Tipton also won't play today with a knee injury.
Nate Johnston will again start in place of Miller and Kendrick Percell will replace Tipton.