Sam Houston executing a unique strategy during transition to FBS

Courtesy of Sam Houston Football

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Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler was facing a dilemma. The Bearkats were beginning a two-year transition to FBS and Conference USA. He knew this transition would be unlike any other previous transition from FCS to FBS due to the addition of the transfer portal.

“When Appalachian State transitioned from FCS to FBS, those kids couldn’t go anywhere,” Keeler said. “The only place they could go was down to Division II football, and they didn’t want to do that, so this is a completely different world to transition with the portal.”

The Bearkats have a roster of players that other teams would love to spot in the transfer portal. It’s loaded with talented players that won the 2020 FCS title and 21 of an unprecedented 22 games during the 2021 calendar year.

“There was a little, let's say, negotiation in terms of what they wanted to do,” Keeler said. “Some of our kids said they’d rather play two years in Conference USA than play for nothing. They would talk about the portal being out there. I knew we couldn’t have those guys going in the portal.”

Sam Houston did have several players choose to enter the transfer portal, but nearly all of those athletes had already graduated. The graduates decided to try and move to another school where they would have a chance to play in a bowl game before their collegiate careers ended, which Keeler understood. He even began making calls to help those players find new homes.

“They fulfilled their obligation. I wanted them to stay. I desperately wanted them to stay, but if you graduate, I'm good with trying to help you do whatever you want,” Keeler said. “You fulfilled your responsibilities to the program by playing hard, doing all the right things, and graduating, so how can I help you?”

For the remaining players, the dilemma facing Keeler was to find a way to convince them to stay in Huntsville and fulfill their desire to play for two years in Conference USA.

“One of the things that I do best is problem-solving,” Keeler said. “We looked at the situation and had an open and honest dialogue with our players to see what they were thinking. And a lot of guys were really excited to go play BYU and play Houston and play Air Force at NRG stadium next year.”

It was an enticing opportunity to play at Texas A&M to open this season and a chance to earn a ring for winning 11 consecutive games in the Battle of the Piney Woods. Rumor has it the rings look spectacular. But that only provides motivation for two games. What about the remaining schedule?

“We're trying to thread a very unique needle, in that we're trying to win as many games as we can because that's our culture,” Keeler said. “And we decided to redshirt as many players as possible and move as many great players into Conference USA as we can.”

Around 20 players are redshirting this season, including top players like wide receivers Ife Adeyi and Noah Smith, offensive lineman Ethan Hagler, tight end Jax Sherrard, defensive end Jevon Leon, and defensive back Isaiah Downes.

“It kind of worked out in our favor that there is a nine-game schedule because they only had to miss five games to redshirt,” Keeler said. “We'll probably have more than half of our starters not playing the next two weeks, but every obstacle is an opportunity. We talk a lot about how these younger guys have a lot of opportunities to get playing time.”

Many of those younger guys are excelling with the increase in playing time. Linebackers Jaylen Phillips and Kavian Gaither have earned WAC Player of the Week honors while replacing starters Trevor Williams and Sincere Jackson. 

“They normally wouldn’t be getting all those reps, but now that they're getting those reps, they're playing at the level of all-conference players,” Keeler said.

This raises the question of whether the younger players will enter the transfer portal after showcasing their skills this year for more playing time at a different institution.

“For the guys who haven't graduated, there are some new rules that are going into place that are gonna make it less attractive to those guys to transfer,” Keeler said. “This is the hardest year of the transition for us because of a nine-game schedule and no chance of playing for a national championship.”

The on-field results have been mixed for the Bearkats during this experiment. The offense has struggled to score consistently, averaging 18.6 points per game and only scoring more than 20 points in three games, which resulted in a change at offensive coordinator following their game against Eastern Kentucky. 

Despite the struggles, Sam Houston has won five straight games with two home games remaining this year against Abilene Christian and Southern Utah.

“It has been a struggle at times trying to understand what the motivation is with a lot of guys sitting out, but at the same time, we have great kids, and there's a standard that's been set,” Keeler said. “We're going to play to that standard.”

There has been one game where Keeler felt his team was not playing to the standard. Keeler noticed the enthusiasm and preparation were below his standard leading into the game at Utah Tech. Unfortunately, the on-field performance resembled their practice that week, and the Bearkats had to fight to earn an 18-13 victory.

“We all looked at each other and said that's not who we are, and Tarleton got very angry, very determined, very motivated, very excited to play Bearkat team the next week, and it showed on the field,” Keeler said. “We played really well against Tarleton.”

Very well, indeed. Sam Houston’s defense forced six turnovers, and the offense had its best production of the season in a 40-21 win. Before the game at Tarleton, the best offensive output this year was 27 points against Texas A&M-Commerce.

“We have tried to address any negatives head-on during the season. Going to Utah Tech and losing up there could have been something that would have put us a step back,” Keeler said. “It’s not that Utah Tech has a bad football team. It’s the fact that we weren’t playing with the same enthusiasm and preparation that we normally have.”

Every decision has unintended consequences, and Keeler’s decision to redshirt as many players as possible led to an unintended consequence that benefits the program and the players serving a redshirt season.

After all, many of the players redshirting are part of a group that won a national title, a Southland Conference title, a Western Athletic Conference title, and the ASUN-WAC Challenge while setting an NCAA record for most wins and games played in a calendar year during 2021.

“We're still feeling the effects from playing 22 games in 10 months. A good part of those guys we’re redshirting played those 22 games,” Keeler said. “We’re moving our spring back, so we have more time between now and spring ball to get our kids in the weight room and get them healthy and fresh.”

Whether the redshirt strategy is successful will be decided over the next few years. However, no one will be surprised if it works because Keeler has a track record of success while adapting to the changing landscape of college football. It’s how he won two national titles and led his team through 22 games in one calendar year.

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