In the FCS Huddle: The next step is hardest

Teams with a new head coach often find there's a weigh station halfway up the climb from the outhouse to the penthouse.

Getting to respectability enthuses many, but taking the next step to a championship level frustrates most.

Now that Southeastern Louisiana football is back on its feet, the program faces the tougher part of the ascent.

Second-year head coach Ron Roberts made a move this offseason to close the final gap on the power teams in the Southland Conference. The Lions supplemented their veteran returning lineup with a recruiting class that boasts 20 transfers, a considerably high number for any level of college football.

Game on, the Lions say.

"I think we've done a pretty good job of recruiting," Roberts said. "We have a pretty good corps of kids coming back. We have nine starters on offense, eight on defense coming back. We've added some guys in the mix, we've created a lot more depth.

"We were a very young team last year, I think we're going to be a little more mature. The Southland Conference is a heck of a conference, you have to be ready to play on a consistent basis, week in and week out. I think getting to be able to do that and prepare for that is to compete. You have to have competition and we've created a lot more competition at positions. I'm excited about our opportunities."

When Roberts arrived in Hammond in December 2011, he was coming off a successful five-year run at Division II Delta State. Southeastern Louisiana had gone a combined 5-17 in 2010 and '11, including 2-12 in the Southland, and suffered through six losing seasons in the seven years before Roberts.

In his debut, Southeastern Louisiana made considerable progress. They posted a 5-6 overall record and a 5-2 mark within the conference, finishing only one game behind Central Arkansas and fellow co-champion and FCS back-to-back national runner-up Sam Houston State, although the Lions were a longer way off when considering they lost to those two teams by a combined 90 points.

This year's recruiting class isn't so much a quick fix as it is plugging holes and supplementing depth. Roberts had started rebuilding the foundation before he and his staff signed the transfers.

"Last year, we didn't go into the season with our full allotment of scholarships," Roberts said. "We didn't find the caliber of guys that we needed, so rather than sign a guy that can't play for us, we saved them. Obviously, there's not a lot of high school guys available at Christmas. That was one reason.

"The other thing is our commitment here is we're going to sign Louisiana kids. I don't want to bypass them, those kids that can help us. And after that, we're going to go the transfer route, the junior college or the Division I transfers, and try to get a home, local flavor with our high school players. After that, we'll go on to the best players we can find wherever they area."

The transfers are led by three from FBS programs. Dual-threat quarterback Bryan Bennett, from the University of Oregon, is expected to step in as the junior starter in an up-tempo offense, while physical running back Kody Sutton from Wyoming and athletic defensive back Devanta Davis from North Texas will jump into the mix as well.

Offensive lineman Laurence Ramsey (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College), defensive lineman Jacob Newman (College of Sequoias) and wide receiver Marquis Hayes (Copiah-Lincoln Community College) also are key additions in the signing class.

Gone is All-Southland cornerback Robert Alford, the first FCS player taken in the 2013 NFL Draft, but the returnees include all-conference second-team selections Gasten Gabriel (left tackle) and Xavier Roberson (all-purpose) as well as tight end Jeremy Meyers, wide receiver Tony McCrea and defensive backs Tyler Stoddard and Todd Washington, who each earned all-conference honorable mention.

"I felt coming out of spring we were a better football team than we were last fall," said Roberts, whose big challenge is to get his players to jell before their 12-game season kicks off on Aug. 29 at home against Southeast Missouri State.

"That's the big challenge anytime you add that many newcomers. We're going to go through that, obviously, in fall camp. That will be the time where we have to get these guys on one page, one heartbeat before we start playing games."

Southeastern Louisiana will lose a small handful of scholarships in the next three years for use of ineligible players under a previous coaching staff in 2006 and '07, but, Roberts said, "We've known about it, we've prepared for it, we're going to plan to make sure it makes the least amount of impact possible."

Roberts' focus remains on getting the Lions to take the next step up the conference ladder. Stephen F. Austin rose from the outhouse to the penthouse a few years back, but has stepped back. Northwestern State was at the rebuilding spot that Southeastern Louisiana finds itself now and then couldn't get over the hump.

The Lions think they have taken some steps to insure they reach their goals.

"We've got to cover some ground because some people might have more talent than us right now," Roberts said. "We're going to have to do that with being smart and working hard, putting our players in the best situations to succeed.

"We want to win and we want to be in the (FCS) playoffs and we want to win a conference championship. I don't know if any outside pressure can even come close to what we're going to put on ourselves."