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In the FCS Huddle: Southland Conference spring football primer

<p>The Southland Conference's reputation has grown in recent years, especially behind Sam Houston State's national success.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Southland Conference's reputation has grown in recent years, especially behind Sam Houston State's national success.

Now the conference is ready to grow literally.

Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word will come aboard in the 2014 season to push Southland football to 11 members.

Everybody else is chasing Southeastern Louisiana, the defending champion which will make a run for the FCS title, just as Sam Houston State did in the 2011 and '12 seasons.

Here's a look across the conference with spring practices getting underway around the nation:

STORY LINES

Not to be lost in the fact that defending champion Southeastern Louisiana is expecting to be even better is that it lost the standout kicking duo of Seth Sebastian and Matt McCormick. Place-kicker Ryan Adams and punter Tim Callian hope to prove themselves during spring drills.

Clint Conque left Central Arkansas after 14 seasons as head coach to step across the conference and take over at Stephen F. Austin, which has slipped since winning Southland titles in 2009 and '10. Conque's biggest catch of the recruiting season was his son Zach, who left UTSA to likely become the Lumberjacks' starting quarterback.

At Central Arkansas, everybody is getting to know each other better with Steve Campbell having replaced Clint Conque as the Bears' head coach.

The other big coaching change was Willie Fritz leaving Sam Houston State for Georgia Southern and K.C. Keeler taking over the Bearkats' program. In 11 seasons at Delaware, Keeler went to three FCS championship games, winning the 2003 national title.

Lamar had its best defense since reinstating the program, ranking third in total defense, but the Cardinals return only three starters.

Southland defenses will quickly become familiar with Incarnate Word's two top running backs, Broderick Reeves and Junior Sessions, who combined for 1,152 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground last season.

During Houston Baptist's six-game developmental season last year, the players did not lose a season of eligibility, just a year toward their five-year NCAA clock. So a Huskie like freshman running back B.J. Kelly, who had twice as many all-purpose yards (782) as anyone else and tied for the team lead with five touchdowns, still has four seasons of remaining eligibility.

Despite losing All-Southland running back Marcus Wiltz, McNeese State is deep at the position with juniors Kelvin Bennett (774 yards as a sophomore) and Dylan Long as well as SEC transfers Nate Holmes (Arkansas) and Derrick Milton (Mississippi State).

Northwestern State's 6-6 record last season was its best since 2008, but head coach Jay Thomas has lost both his offensive and defensive coordinators to other programs. He is expected to fill the spots from within to keep continuity with the program.

THEY'RE BACK

While the All-Southland first team was senior-dominated last season, Southeastern Louisiana has three selections returning in quarterback Bryan Bennett (the conference player of the year), all-purpose/kick returner Xavier Roberson and cornerback Harlan Miller.

After having a breakout season as a junior, Northwestern State 6-foot-4, 315- pound defensive tackle Deon Simon has the body and skill set to attract pro scouts.

Stephen F. Austin running back Gus Johnson has rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns the last two seasons and looks for even better production as a senior.

Everybody dreads having to defend 6-foot-6 Central Arkansas defensive end Jonathan Woodard, who has been dominant in each of his first two seasons.

POSITION BATTLES

No Southland team faces a more critical loss than McNeese State and three-year starting quarterback Cody Stroud. There's no QB on the roster with starting experience, although juniors Tyler Bolfing and Will Briscoe and redshirt freshman Joe Lissard hope to be up to task.

Southeastern Louisiana is trying to replace starting left tackle Gasten Gabriel with a transfer, either Byron Smith (Citrus College) or Aaron Reed (Southern Mississippi).

Abilene Christian is replacing a ton of offensive production, including from a quarterback (John David Baker) who threw for 35 touchdowns against only five interceptions last season. There are six candidates for the starting job, led by last year's backups, Malcolm Ruben and Parker McKenzie.

Injuries have led to Nicholls starting four different quarterbacks over the last two season. Landry Klann, the 2012 starter, is back after missing last season with a shoulder injury to join seniors Beaux Hebert and Kalen Henderson and running-style junior Tuskani Figaro in the competition for the top job.

Houston Baptist coach Vic Shealy signed a lot of offensive and defensive linemen as he looks to create competition and build there.

BREAKOUT PERFORMERS

With Sam Houston losing running back Timothy Flanders, senior Keshawn Hill finally gets the spotlight. Hill has 1,407 rushing yards in his career.

The 2012 Southland Conference newcomer of the year wouldn't appear to be a breakout candidate, but Kevin Johnson won the honor as a wide receiver after transferring in from Oklahoma State. He was moved to safety midway through last season, and, considering all four starters in the secondary were lost, Johnson could emerge as the unit's leader.

Speaking of Oklahoma State transfers, Abilene Christian is counting on running back Herschel Sims to help replace running backs Darrell Cantu Harkless and Charcandrick West.

After a 30-tackle season, Central Arkansas linebacker D.J. Holland is expected to raise his level of play as a junior.

READY FOR IMPROVEMENT

As they step into a much tougher schedule in the Southland Conference, newcomers Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word have to take a step forward with their play on the offensive and defensive lines.

Stephen F. Austin struggled to stop opposing pass attacks and then lost all four starters in the secondary. The new group will be asked to mesh quickly.

Opponents relentlessly ran the ball against Nicholls last season. The Colonels, who surrendered 49 or more points seven times, must get more physical at the point of attack.

Northwestern State has to improve on special teams. Kicker Chris Moore and punter Andy Wickman were inconsistent, and opponents scored off three kickoff returns and two punt returns (one off a block).

SPRING PRACTICE DATES

Abilene Christian: Feb. 26-April 5

Central Arkansas: March 6-April 12

Houston Baptist: Feb. 25-April 4

Incarnate Word: March 18-April 12

Lamar: Feb. 10-March 1

McNeese State: March 18-April 12

Nicholls: March 25-April 14

Northwestern State: March 18-April 10

Sam Houston State: March 17-April 11

Southeastern Louisiana: March 11-April 12

Stephen F. Austin: March 21-April 12

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