Gene Schallenberg / Huntsville Item – Putting the wraps on the 2012 recruiting class, filling the coaching vacancies and maneuvering through a spring program injury-free are among the things that come each offseason in college football, a time which has now arrived.
With a couple of weeks left until national signing day (Feb. 1), the time has come for the Bearkats’ 2011 season, as long and enjoyable as it was, to come to an end and begin looking forward to what 2012 has in store.
Before closing the book completely on the kind of season the Bearkats had — outright Southland Conference championship, first-ever No. 1 ranking and undefeated run to the national title game — it’s probably best to take one last look at what transpired in Frisco a little more than a week ago.
In a tough and tight battle between the two best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, the difference between winning a national championship and finishing as the No. 2 team in the land came down to a few select plays.
From the Bearkats not being able to convert after a pair of turnovers to a dropped pass that could have resulted in a Sam Houston touchdown to the plays that North Dakota State made in the second half (the 27-yard run on a fake punt, a 39-yard screen pass for a score and the interception that was returned to the Sam Houston 1-yard line), the margin for error was small, minute at best.
Bearkats head coach Willie Fritz had about a week to think back and wrap his mind about what could have been.
“In the national championship, I don’t think we played our best ball game,” the Bearkats coach said last week. “We just didn’t play as well as we’re capable of playing and a lot of the credit for that goes to North Dakota State — very fine ballclub, did an excellent job defensively and presented a little different look than we’ve seen this season with some of the things we did.”
Even though the Kats didn’t finish with the ultimate prize, that doesn’t dampen all of the things this young Sam Houston squad accomplished.
“I’m very, very, very pleased with our season. I can’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve won more games than any team in the history of the Southland Conference,” Fritz said. “We went farther in the NCAA playoffs than any team in Sam Houston history.
“… There’s a lot of positives to draw upon, but we’re not satisfied in any way, shape or form. We’re looking forward to putting an even better product on the field next season.”
On the heels of jumping from a 6-5 record in 2010 to 14-0 and playing for a national title this past season, the good news for the Bearkats is that with a bulk of starters returning, they’ve got enough experience and depth to make another long run in the playoffs in the coming fall season.
Twenty starters combined on both sides of the ball are coming back in 2012, all entering either their junior or senior seasons.
“We lost some good players and we lost some good leaders. The best thing about those guys is that they were all in,” Fritz said. “We cannot get complacent and I know as a coaching staff, that’s not going to happen.
“We’ve got a lot of kids coming back, a lot of good kids coming back. That first meeting we have, I’m going to sit and talk with those seniors when we get done — they’re now seniors — and we’ve got a large senior class and a bunch of those guys are dynamite players. Their success and their legacy is how the 2012 team does.”
Coming such a long way since Fritz’s first year, what the Bearkats hope to avoid is history repeating itself. Previous SHSU squads that reached the playoffs took steps backward and mulled through years of mediocrity before finally returning to the postseason.
These Bearkats hope to build upon their recent success and make postseason play commonplace at Sam Houston.
“It’s my job as a head coach to get our guys, when we get back here next week, grounded. What we want to be is a consistently great football program,” Fritz said.
“I told our guys many times that I want people to talk about Sam Houston the way they talk about Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, North Dakota State and Montana. That’s what we’re looking for. In order to do that, there’s some areas we’ve got to improve in and do better.”
While the immediate thoughts can be on what to expect next and how the Bearkats can build upon the success from the 2011 campaign, Fritz and his coaching staff first have to tackle the shortened offseason step by important step.
The first task that will have to be addressed is to ensure that the right players are brought into the fold through recruiting or transfers who fit the program’s needs.
“Number one, we’re looking for guys who are good players. We’re not going to sign anybody that we don’t think has the ability to play here at Sam Houston State at a high level,” Fritz said. “Number two, we’re looking for guys with great character. Number three, we’re looking for guys who can compete in the classroom.
“That’s what our challenge is, finding guys that are going to fit in. The thing we’ve got to do and I’ve got to do as a head coach is quit bringing in guys who don’t have a chance. We’ve got to find guys that are capable students and they’re out there, guys that can also play. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
The Bearkats lose 14 seniors and just four starters — offensive linemen Travis Watson and Chris Crockett, linebackers Kash David and Will Henry — as well as defensive end Eddie Decambre and return specialist Brandon Closner.
As a result, this year’s recruiting class will be smaller in number compared to ones in the past.
“We’re not going to be able to sign as many. Fifteen kids is what we’re looking at right now,” Fritz said. “We feel good about our first set of offensive linemen coming back, but a bunch of those guys are going to be seniors next year, so we’re going to sign four or five offensive linemen. There are some other areas that we need some depth in as well.
“I’m hoping we get done with 99 percent of our recruiting in the next two weeks, really less than that, in a week and a half.”
After the Bearkats get all of their recruits signed, the next step for Fritz and Co. is finding suitable replacements for offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse and offensive line coach Derek Warehime, who both left to take jobs at New Mexico.
“I was at the national convention (in San Antonio) and I’m amazed at the quality of applicants that we have for those positions,” Fritz said. “We’re going to find two quality coaches to fill those spots. It’s the same thing as players, I’ve got to find guys with high character and guys that understand Sam Houston State University and that are going to have the same commitment that we all have here. I’m going to worry more about that when recruiting gets done.”
With a strong spring session, in which the Bearkats will work on getting bigger and stronger as well as developing their passing game more, Sam Houston can make strides toward carrying the momentum from this past season into the summer, then take that into preseason practice starting in August.
“This past season only strengthened my resolve in us winning a national championship here,” Fritz explained. “I’m going to do everything I can to get us there. I’m excited about it. I’m going to find out a lot of things about me as a leader and I’m going to find out a lot of things about our new seniors.
“Heck, I’m ready to go and I wish I could have a meeting today. I enjoy the process of getting better and improving day after day after day after day. We’ve got the foundation in place here and we need to build on that foundation.”