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Redhawks are ready to spring into action
Southeast Missouri State football coach Tim Billings regards this year's spring practice period as more important than those he has conducted the past few seasons.
That's because the Redhawks are coming off a 3-8 campaign, including a 3-5 Ohio Valley Conference record that resulted in a sixth-place tie among nine teams.
"No doubt, coming off a very disappointing season, this is a really important spring for us," Billings said. "We really need to set a good tone this spring, and we have a lot of holes to fill. We hope to make some good progress."
The Redhawks will hold their first of 15 spring practices allowed by the NCAA on Saturday, and the spring session will conclude with the annual intrasquad game on April 30 that counts as one of the allotted 15 workouts.
"We're ready to get going," said Billings, who has a 23-34 record in five years at Southeast, including an 8-4 mark in 2002 that represented the program's first winning season since 1994.
But the Redhawks have regressed over the last two years, and Billings knows they must shore up both their offense and defense in order to get back on track. That doesn't figure to be easy, since Southeast lost 17 seniors, many of them among the squad's premier players.
"We lost a lot of good football players, but we think we've got some good ones coming back, and we've added some good ones," Billings said.
Southeast gave up an average of 36.7 points and 492.8 yards per game last season, as its injury-plagued defense ranked among the worst in Division I-AA. The 404 points allowed were the most in school history.
Offensively, Southeast averaged 23.3 points and 346.5 yards per game, which Billings said is too low for the type of wide-open attack the Redhawks favor.
"Offensively, we just have to get a lot better. The wide-open offense we run, we have to average in the 30s," Billings said. "Defensively, we played well at times, but we just gave up way too many big plays.
"You can talk about all the injuries we had, but tackling and missed assignments really hurt us. We're concentrating on that."
Billings said having a new offensive coordinator last season might have hampered the Redhawks, but he expects the offense to be improved now that it has had a year in the system of Rob Likens.
"I think putting in a new offense took some time," Billings said. "Now I think our kids understand it. I think you'll see our biggest improvement on offense."
Defensively, Billings said he won't serve as his own coordinator this year, a position he shared last season with Cody Vardeman after Damon Bradford was called to active duty and missed the entire campaign.
Billings said Bradford will again miss the season as he continues to serve in Iraq, but he will leave the defense in the hands of Vardeman and two assistants who recently joined the staff, Craig Wederquist and Joe Dan Rogers.
"Cody's been over there [on defense] five years now, and with the two new coaches, they'll all three kind of run it," Billings said. "Craig has had a lot of experience and he's been a defensive coordinator.
"I think me having to run the defense, and doing all my other duties, probably took away from our overall team some. I think this situation will be a lot better."
While Southeast needs to fill quite a few holes before the 2005 season opener at home against Southern Illinois on Sept. 1, none is more glaring than at quarterback. There is virtually no experience at that position following the graduation of Andrew Goodenough.
Mike Haley, who attempted just 15 passes as a junior last season -- basically all in mop-up duty -- after transferring from junior college, appears to have the inside track as the starter, although he should receive a strong challenge from juco transfer Kevin Ballatore.
Ballatore was second nationally in passing yardage (3,029) and touchdowns (35) last season at Santa Rosa Community College in California. One of five mid-semester juco transfers enrolled in school, Ballatore will be limited to non-contact work during spring drills as he continues to recover from knee surgery.
"Mike has a lot of ability. He's a really good athlete, and he was a great junior college quarterback," Billings said. "He knows the offense, and we have a lot of confidence in him.
"Kevin will do everything but contact, so he'll be able to learn our system, and he'll be ready for the fall. He's a great addition to the team. I think they're both really talented, and a big thing will be how they lead the team."
The only other quarterback on the spring roster is Matt Lawrence, a former walk-on at Baylor who saw no game action for the Bears.
"I don't really know a whole lot about him, but he's friends with one of our wide receivers from Texas [Mike Williamson], and he was a good high school quarterback," Billings said.
Another intriguing position battle figures to be at place-kicker after four-year standout Derek Kutz graduated. The only kickers on the spring roster are Central High School product Collin Schermann and Mark Sophie, who both redshirted as freshmen last year, although Billings said Southeast signed a kicker from Florida who will arrive for fall practice.