Last season, Stephen F. Austin was like a tale of two teams.
On the one hand, the Lumberjacks led all of FCS in passing offense with 389 passing yards per game. But then there was the defensive side of the ball, where Stephen F. Austin ranked dead last (122nd) in scoring defense with 49.3 points allowed per contest.
But there are plenty of changes for the Lumberjacks, including a new coach in Clint Conque and a defense that added four new faces in the way of FBS transfers.
One thing is for certain in K-State coach Bill Snyder’s mind — SFA will be improved.
“Everything that comes out of their practices previews the case that they are a vastly improved defensive football team,” Snyder said. “As you go through and look at their depth chart you’ll see they have transfers from major schools. They’ve got a lot of transplants that are there right now that certainly make them formidable.”
Conque comes to the Lumberjacks after serving as head coach at Central Arkansas from 2000-13. In 13 seasons, Conque’s teams amassed 105 wins.
With a new coach and so many new players, Stephen F. Austin is proving hard to prepare for both offensively and defensively.
The Lumberjacks were proven passers last season, but they also return one of their all-time rushers in Gus Johnson, a big, bruising back who ran for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
“They’re very talented and they’re hard to scheme for,” sophomore linebacker Will Davis said. “They’re hard to plan for. From a defensive perspective, we can’t take anything for granted and come out prepared and ready to go. Their whole coaching staff is new, so we’re pretty much going in blind and trying to prepare for everything.”
Texas-San Antonio transfer Zach Conque — the head coach’s son — comes in as the Lumberjacks new quarterback, with a passing attack that returns three players who had more than 700 receiving yards, including one who eclipsed 1,000 in Tyler Boyd.
On paper, the Stephen F. Austin offense appears to be a well-oiled machine.
“Last year, even though there is a coaching change, you look at the personnel, this is an offensive football tem that led the nation, in their division, in total offense,” Snyder said. “Very productive, very strong passing game, new quarterback, who’s had some success as a transfer. Johnson, their running back, he’s a powerful runner— he’s about 225, right in that vicinity — and runs extremely hard, 1,000 yard rusher. I think they have (a few) receivers who had over 700 yards last season. They’ve got the pieces.”
And that’s where the attention for Stephen F. Austin turns back to its defense. The Lumberjacks were a team that was routinely blown out last year. They opened the season with a 50-40 loss at Weber State and then lost 61-13 at Texas Tech.
On the season, the Lumberjacks allowed opponents to score 50 or more points in seven games. It should come as no surprise, for that reason, that the team finished 3-9 and dead last in the Southland Conference.
With the Conque era starting at Stephen F. Austin, anything can change. And with so many new faces on defense, the Wildcats can’t know what to expect.
Senior quarterback Jake Waters said what they can do, is study what Conque and defensive coordinator Matt Williamson’s teams did defensively at Central Arkansas.
“It’s tough to prepare because you don’t know how they’re going to change with their personnel,” he said. “You just have to look at the schematics of what they did and what the defensive coordinator did at his old school and in their spring game. It definitely is tough, but that just makes it harder on us. We have to go out there and be focused during the game.”
Stephen F. Austin will be looking to improve its history with the Big 12 on Saturday. In seven all-time matchups with the conference — all losses — the Lumberjacks have been outscored 386-23.