2023 DCTF Magazine Team Preview: Sam Houston Bearkats

Photo by Brian Blalock

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With long-awaited leap to FBS, Bearkats prepared to make Texas hear their roar.

The Sam Houston football program doesn’t fear change because obstacles are all the current roster understands. A move to the FBS  from the FCS feels like light work compared to the previous three seasons. 

The 2020 fall season was canceled due to COVID-19, which forced the Bearkats to compete in the 2021 spring season without a locker room or any real facility to speak of in Huntsville while the old one was renovated. They overcame those obstacles to win the FCS national championship in the spring and then go 11-0 in the fall before falling in the quarterfinals. 

No team in college football will ever, hopefully, need to win 21 straight games in one calendar year again. 

“It was the greatest year in college football history,” head coach K.C. Keeler said about his program’s 21-1 record in 2021. 

The 2022 season was even more trying on the Bearkats. Keeler redshirted over a dozen upperclassmen because his Bearkats weren’t eligible for the FCS playoffs or a WAC championship while transitioning to the FBS. Sam Houston went 5-4 on the season as the young players on the roster earned significant experience ahead of  2023 . 

“The 2022 season was maybe the most brutal thing I’ve ever had to go through in my coaching career because we’re an all-in organization,” Keeler said. “It got frustrating towards the end of the season because we were struggling while I had 13 or 14 of the best players in America sitting on my bench redshirting. Our calling card is winning games, so it was hard getting to the finish line.”  

But that’s all in the rear-view mirror for a program, and a head coach, making its maiden voyage into the FBS. Keeler is the only coach to ever win FCS national titles with two different teams. His 259 career wins is 26th all time in college football. The only active head coaches left with more wins than him are Nick Saban, Mack Brown, and Brian Kelly. Keeler is 85-27 at Sam Houston entering his 10th year in Huntsville, and the only teams with more wins during that time span are North Dakota State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Clemson. 

The playoffs are no longer a carrot for Keeler and his team to chase. He’s coached his whole career with the playoffs in mind. Now, that focus shifts to conference titles and bowl berths. Sam Houston hopes the NCAA provides the Bearkats with a waiver to reach a bowl game above any 5-7 teams that qualify through APR so that his team has something to play for other than pride during the 2023 season. 

“My mantra was always about reaching the playoffs, and then it becomes a one-game season once you’re there. I had that down pretty well,” Keeler said. “Chasing bowl games will be a unique challenge. I’m still working out what my theme will be for the fellas.” 

The excitement in the Sam Houston facility is palpable. The new facility is top notch. The recruiting class in 2023 was the best in program history. Interest in the Bearkats is at an all-time high. The roster isn’t worried about the doubters. Only the possibilities. 

“We’re more excited to prove ourselves right more than prove other people wrong,” linebacker Trevor Williams said. “This is new territory for all of us. It is a chance to achieve our dreams and prove that Sam Houston belongs on this level.” 


The transition from FCS to FBS isn’t as easy as James Madison made it look in 2022. A tough non-conference schedule won’t help the Bearkats ease into life in a new division and a bowl is technically possible but difficult due to rules governing transitions from FCS to FBS. This is also head coach K.C. Keeler’s first voyage into the FBS ranks. Growing pains are natural. Sam Houston will compete for C-USA championships, but it won’t happen right away. 


Zach Hrbacek by Brian Blalock


Offense looking for a boost as Bearkats kick off FBS adventure

Sam Houston head coach K.C. Keeler hired former Virginia Tech and Memphis assistant Brad Cornelson as offensive coordinator as the Bearkats enter FBS football. Keeler expects the offense to be a multiple formation outfit that resembles what Sam Houston was doing during the 2021 national championship run. The unit only averaged 18.33 points per game in 2022 after scoring 41 a contest in the fall of 2021. 

North Texas transfer Grant Gunnell was a late add to challenge Keegan Shoemaker at quarterback. Gunnell was a former four-star recruit who is still the all-time leader for Texas high school football in many passing categories. Shoemaker, a 6-3, 200-pound Prosper product, began his career on a partial scholarship and etched his name into Sam Houston lore by leading consecutive comeback wins over rival SFA in the last two seasons. Keeler says his program is still figuring out the backup quarterback situation as the team enters the summer. 

“Guys have been able to learn the offense quickly,” Shoemaker said after spring ball. “Once we got clicking after the first few weeks of spring ball, we started to excel. We’re doing our jobs and we’re starting to see the results.” 

The good news for Sam Houston is that multiple weapons return on the outside, including senior wide receiver Ife Adeyi. The Mansfield Legacy alum was one of 14 upperclassmen to redshirt in 2022 to preserve a year of eligibility for FBS football. He’ll be flanked out wide by Qua’Vez Humphreys and Noah Smith. New Mexico Military Institute transfer Mark Phillips and former Texas Longhorn Al’vonte Woodard provide depth. 

The tight end position should be improved for the Bearkats in 2023, according to Keeler. Jax Sherrard is a former Davidson transfer who was an All-Pioneer first team selection back in 2021. Sophomore Thomas Jewett is a former three-star prospect from Strake Jesuit who possesses plenty of upside. Both players sat out 2022 to save eligibility for the FBS transition. 

Running back is the strength of the offense with Troy native Zach Hrbacek returning for his sophomore season. He’s rushed for 656 yards and four touchdowns on 108 career carries for the Bearkats. Fellow sophomore John Gentry, a former standout as a state champion at Class 6A Galena Park North Shore, transferred to Huntsville from Utah State to compete at running back. Smith can also move from wide receiver to play running back. 

Sam Houston feels good about its starting offensive line, but depth could become a concern if injuries mount up against a tough schedule. Graceson Jackson-Smith starts at left tackle, while Khalil Miller slots next to him at guard. Center Ethan Hagler anchors the unit at center. James Dawn (guard) and D’Ary Patton are expected to start on the right side of the unit.



Zach Hrbacek: The sophomore from Troy returns after rushing for 495 yards and three touchdowns during Sam Houston’s nine-game season in 2022. 


Jordan Yates transferred to Sam Houston from Georgia Tech with the hopes of earning the starting quarterback spot heading into the 2022 season. After struggling at the spot during three appearances last year, the athletic Yates has reinvented himself as a running back for the Bearkats as they transition to FBS football. He’ll need to carve a role in a loaded running back room, but Yates is one of the few players on the roster with FBS experience. 



Markel Perry by Brian Blalock


Depth may take some time, but front-line defense is ready to make the quick transition

Sam Houston’s defense under co-defensive coordinators Clayton Carlin and Joe Morris continued to create havoc and turnovers in 2022 despite multiple starters opting out of the season to save eligibility for the 2023 move to the FBS. The Bearkats allowed 20.7 points per game last season, which was over a half-point improvement from the unit in the fall of 2021. 

The disruption begins up front, specifically with defensive end Markel Perry. The senior enters the season with 41.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks since the start of 2019. He only played two games in 2022. Georgia State transfer Akeem “Meatball” Smith made a big impact in the spring and the 300-pounder should anchor the interior of the defensive line alongside Chris Scott. Jevon Leon plays opposite Perry on the edge. Chris Murray transferred in from TCU and the sophomore should provide another pass rushing option. 

The outlook at linebacker might be even brighter than the defensive line. Defensive leader Trevor Williams is back at the Mike position after skipping the final five games of 2022 to retain a year of eligibility. The 5-9 senior accounted for 166 tackles during the 22-game stretch of 2021. He’ll be flanked by Sincere Jackson at the Will position in Sam Houston’s 4-2-5 set up. Kavian Gaither and Jaylen Phillips are the primary backups at the second level. 

“We’re a deeper team because of the depth we created by redshirting some of the upperclassmen,” head coach K.C. Keeler explained. “Just look at the linebacker unit. Gaither was an All-WAC selection, and he might be a reserve for us. We feel good about our front. We have depth at both levels.” 

The front-line guys in the secondary are mostly proven commodities. David Fisher returns at cornerback after recording two interceptions in nine games last year as a redshirt freshman. Sam Houston dipped into the transfer portal and acquired Jordan Morris from Coastal Carolina, who is expected to start at the other cornerback position. The nickel spot, which is called the “Kat” position in Huntsville, is expected to be Isaiah Downes or Caleb Weaver.

Former TCU Horned Frog Da’Veawn Armstead is ready for a starting role at boundary safety. The junior played in eight games as a reserve for Sam Houston in 2022. Donovan Adkins, a junior from Kilgore, is slated to start at free safety. He blocked a punt in the comeback win over SFA a year ago and gained valuable experience in nine appearances. Da’Marcus Crosby and Jaidan Scott are the primary reserves at safety entering fall camp. 


Markel Perry: Perry recorded double-digit tackles for loss in each of the three seasons he played in since 2019. He and his 16.5 career sacks are  back after redshirting in 2022. 


Depth is the hardest thing to build as an FCS squad transitions to FBS football, but the Bearkats won’t have that problem at middle linebacker. Trevor Williams returns to lead the group, but 2022 WAC Defensive Player of the Year Kavian Gaither will play a role. The 6-0, 200-pound junior from Waco Connally was also a Buck Buchanan Award finalist and a first-team all-conference selection. He recorded 79 tackles, including 12 for loss and three sacks in a nine-game season.  





Sam Houston star linebacker Trevor Williams was faced with a hard choice during the 2022 season. The A&M Consolidated product could continue playing past Game 4 and lose his final season of eligibility, or he could sit out the rest of the way and retain a year of eligibility as his Bearkats entered the FBS ranks in 2023.

A torn labrum in a wild win over SFA made the decision easier, but it didn’t ease the hurt of watching his teammates struggle to a 5-4 season last year. After all, Williams is a team leader and an all-conference performer with over 30 starts in his career. 

“Playing in all the games I’ve played, and then being on the sideline, it was weird,” Williams said. “I didn’t like it, but it gave me a new perspective on football and helped me coach the younger guys. I made sure to show leadership to the younger guys.” 

Williams is an undersized linebacker with 260 career tackles, including 27.5 for loss. He led the FCS with 15 tackles for loss during Sam Houston’s run to a national championship in the spring of 2021. The 5-9 playmaker had a dream of playing FBS football in high school, and he thought that was shelved when he chose Sam Houston. The chance to play at the FBS level  was too good to pass up, even if it meant a frustrating five games as a glorified assistant coach last season. 

“My goal in high school was to play FBS football,” Williams admitted. “Got the opportunity to come to Sam without knowing I could achieve that goal here. We’ve come a long way since I stepped on campus. We’ve accomplished a lot, and we’re not done.” 

The move up a classification won’t derail expectations at Sam Houston. As head coach K.C. Keeler says, “throw the reasonable out the window when setting our expectations. We’re not reasonable here.” Williams agrees. The whole team is a group of overachievers used to success. Only five teams in all of college football have won more games in the last nine seasons than Sam Houston. Williams doesn’t expect that success to slow down despite a higher level of competition. 

“Our expectation is to win every game we play,” he said. “We won’t enter any of these games just hoping to keep it close or to not be embarrassed. We’re used to winning. That’s what we do here.”


Sam Houston won’t expect a warm welcome to life as an FBS program, especially considering the difficult non-conference schedule awaiting the Bearkats. They start 2023 with games against BYU, Air Force, and Houston before beginning Conference USA play against Jax State. Only five of the 12 games on the slate take place on a Saturday. A home game on Oct. 25 against UTEP provides a unique East Texas vs. West Texas showdown. 




The Expert's Take with DCTF Recruiting Analyst Greg Powers

The move to the FBS empowered the Sam Houston coaching staff on the recruiting trail, and they were able to ink some impressive talent. The Bearkats prioritized keeping recruits at home as 15 of their 16 high school signings hail from the Lone Star State. Six signings were considered three stars per DCTF’s prospect rankings formula. The table has been set for future success. 



WR Lonnie Adkism
Adkism, a productive receiver in high school, had an impressive varsity career with 237 receptions, 4,706 receiving yards, and 58 touchdowns. He’s a hardworking student-athlete who excels on and off the field.

QB Xavier Ward
The California native missed his freshman season in 2021 with an injury and did not appear in a game in 2022, but he was considered one of the top arms in his class when he inked with Washington State out of high school.

DB Jamarie Wiggins
Wiggins is a hard-hitting safety who plays with great intensity and aggressiveness. He is a natural leader on and off the field, showing good instincts, awareness in coverage, and the ability to come up and make tackles in run support. 


OL Zachary Session
Session is a naturally strong offensive lineman with long arms and experience playing both tackle and guard. His ability to redirect defenders with a swipe makes him a valuable asset to any offense. He is continuing to refine his skills in pass protection to become a well-rounded lineman.

DB D’Marea Weaver
Weaver, a three-star athlete, brings aggressiveness and suddenness to the secondary. His competitive spirit and willingness to attack the football make him a valuable addition to any team. Once he refines his technique, he has the potential to excel in the secondary. 


High school/Junior College (247Sports Rank: 87th)

Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Previous School
Lonnie Adkism WR 6’0   190 Corpus Christi Miller
Coco Brown RB 5’10   190 Denton
Da’Marcus Crosby DB 6’2 195 Kilgore JC
Kolt Dieterich OL 6’6   280 Riesel
Easton Fulton OL 6’3   300 Rosebud-Lott
Jayden Gaines DL 6’3   275 Houston Westside
Forest Gatlin LB 6’1   240 Mesquite
Bryce Gilchrist TE 6’3   240 Frisco Heritage
Dakerric Hobbs DB 6’0   190 Kilgore JC
Dax Horany DB 6’2   195 Argyle
Qua’Vez Humphreys WR 6’3 215 Butler CC
Will Hutchens OL 6’4   280 Lindale
Graceson Jackson-Smith OL 6’4 300 Tyler JC
Kaden Kelly DB 5’11   170 Denton Ryan
William McCollum OL 6’5 325 Co-Lin JC
DJ McKinney RB 5’9 175 Tulsa Union (Okla.)
Malik Phillips WR 5’11 175 New Mexico Military Institute
Chantson Prox DB 5’11   175 Canton
Zachary Session OL 6’4   305 Morton Ranch
Eli Wallace LB 6’1 215 Duncanville
D’Marea Weaver DB 6’0   190 Nacogdoches
Nate White DL 6’3 225 Co-Lin CC
Jamarie Wiggins DB 6’1   180 Waco Connally
Quintavius Workman WR 6’6 210 East Los Angeles College


Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Previous School|
John Gentry RB 5’11 205 Utah State
Grant Gunnell QB 6’6 225 North Texas
Rhett Larson OT 6’4 300 SMU
Jaden Phillips DL 6’2 240 New Mexico
Akeem Smith DL 6’0 295 Georgia State
Xavier Ward QB 6’2 205 Washington State

Five Key Losses

Player Pos.
Cody Chrest WR
BJ Foster DB
Toby Ndukwe DL
Seth Morgan K
Dezmon Jackson RB

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