Philadelphia, PA – While the rest of the Southland Conference had the luxury of devoting more time to high school recruits the last two months, everybody agrees they still are chasing Sam Houston State.
Just like they did in the 2011 regular season.
Recruiting dominates December and January for most FCS coaches, but a little something called the NCAA Division I playoffs got in Sam Houston State's way. Not that the national runner-up Bearkats minded.
"We've gotten a really good reception," Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz said about the recruiting season. The national signing period begins Wednesday, Feb. 1.
"We had the opportunity to play three weeks on national TV (in the playoffs) and a couple of those games we were the only (FCS) games on TV. It really helped our exposure. We primarily recruit the state of Texas. Even though we had a late start because we played for so long, we feel like we have an opportunity to have a great class."
Sam Houston State, in its second season under Fritz, won its first 14 games before it lost to North Dakota State, 17-6, in the national championship game Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
The Bearkats will be returning a veteran squad next season, featuring the likes of running back Timothy Flanders, wide receiver Richard Sincere, quarterback Brian Bell and safety Darnell Taylor.
With only about 12 players expected to comprise next season's senior class, the Bearkats' recruiting class will go 13 to 15 deep. The focus is on the offensive line, where three or four of the potential starters will be seniors. Five prospects already are verbally committed to the class.
"Everybody's heard of us," Fritz said. "They know about the playoff run, they know about being in the championship game. Most of the kids watched us in at least three or four ball games. We were on regional TV also three or four times this season (as well as the three playoff games on the ESPN Networks). There's a lot more recognition of the Sam Houston football brand out there."
While Fritz's coaching brethren in the Southland were thrilled to have the conference represented in the national title game - "I think it's huge for our conference, I think we're all going to benefit in recruiting from it," Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque said - they still have some catching up to do this offseason.
The Bearkats' closest game within conference play was a 21-point win over Central Arkansas, the runner-up, but a playoff team as well.
"Any time that they get those guys back playing at the level they're playing, there's no question, there's a gap that we all have to fill," said McNeese State head coach Matt Viator, whose program also is focusing on offensive linemen in its recruiting class.
"We'll see what happens; each year is a different year. We found that out here through the years. But certainly on paper, what they've done and if they can come back and play at a high level and the coaching staff stays intact, players stay intact, players stay healthy, the whole deal, they're going to be tough to deal with."
"I think the good thing is you kind of know what you have to stop and you know what you have to do," against Sam Houston State, said Stephen F. Austin head coach J.C. Harper, whose recruiting class is focused on defense, especially in the trenches and the secondary.
"That's what they give you. Defensively, they're going to give you man-free and get after you with pressure.
"Offensively, you have to be able to stop the run and, hopefully, you can hang in there when they play-action pass and try to big-play you. But I like the fact that we might be able to match up with our speed.
"Obviously, everybody is chasing them. They have (nearly) everybody back."
That Sam Houston State can no longer be a surprising team after it improved by eight wins from Fritz's first season in 2010 (a 6-5 mark) isn't lost on the Bearkats head coach.
He knows which program is wearing the bull's-eye in the Southland Conference.
"The big thing I talked about with our guys at the team meeting (on Tuesday) is that for us to be considered one of the top FCS programs in the nation we've got to back that year up with another year," Fritz said. "That's what we're shooting for. It was a great run, it was great experience for us, but the last thing we want to be is a flash in the pan. We understand it's going to take more hard work than what we did last year because we aren't going to sneak up on everybody. We're going to get everybody's best shot."