Last year Southeast Missouri State University's football team began preseason practice as the Ohio Valley Conference favorite. The Indians wound up tying for third place.
As the Indians conducted their first workout Saturday at Houck Stadium, they're the OVC's preseason No. 4 pick among nine squads. The way the Indians see things, being allowed to fly somewhat under the radar this year -- unlike last season -- just might serve them well as they chase the program's first OVC championship and first playoff berth of any kind.
"I think it will be better for us, not having the target on our back," said senior kicker Derek Kutz, a St. Vincent High School product who earned first-team all-OVC honors last season. "I think it's good to kind of be the underdog. Last year we had the big target, and I think it kind of freaked us out."
Said junior tailback Jamel Oliver, the Indians' leading rusher last season: "Of course, being the underdog is always kind of good. People are not expecting all that much from us, but I'm pretty confident, more so than last year. I think we've got more talent than we've had."
The mood was upbeat and positive just about all the way around Saturday as the Indians opened preseason practice with a workout of a little more than two hours.
"Finally. It's good to be back out here," a smiling Kutz said. "Everybody has been looking forward to this all summer. And it looks like just about everybody came back in good shape."
Saturday's workout was the first of five practices that have been designated "heat acclimation" days under second-year NCAA regulations aimed at cutting down on potential heat-related problems and tragedies, although the Indians were met by cooler than normal temperatures for their first session.
During the first five practice days, the first two are in helmets only, the next two in helmets and shoulder pads and the fifth in full gear but with no contact. Teams can practice only once per day during those first five days.
"You always want to be careful when it's really hot, but the weather was great today," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "I feel like just about everybody came back in good shape, which is a big help.
"We're bigger, stronger and faster than we've been, no question. We get better every year in that area. Coach Helsel does a great job with his conditioning program."
Paul Helsel is Southeast's strength and conditioning coach for all sports. More than 50 football players remained in Cape Girardeau over the summer for the voluntary conditioning program that Helsel runs.
Saturday's practice consisted primarily of teaching, evaluating and conditioning. That will generally be the case until Southeast's first full-contact practice following the "heat acclimation" period.
The Indians will continue practicing at 5:30 p.m. for the first five days, with twice-daily workouts beginning Thursday. Southeast will practice twice every other day until school starts on Aug. 23.