Sam Houston 2024 Roster Autopsy: A veteran bunch knows what to expect in Year 2 of FBS ball

Original photo courtesy of Sam Houston Football

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Sam Houston Bearkats

2023 Finish: 3–9
Off. PPG: 20.0 (118th in FBS)
Def. PPG: 26.2 (65th)
Key Losses: LB Trevor Williams, LB Markel Perry, NT Akeem Smith, DT Chris Scott, KAT Isaiah Downes, QB Keegan Shoemaker
New Faces: 12 Signees, 5 Transfers
Top Additions: TE Austin Smith (Memphis), TE Fernando Garza III (Texas A&M), CB Dravon Wilson (New Caney), ATH Railyn Adams (Newton), TE Cooper Stevens (Cy-Fair)

Offensive Overview

The Bearkats' paltry 20 points per game average was anchored by 10 total points scored in the first three games combined against BYU, Air Force and Houston. The unit was better, albeit not explosive, once it entered Conference USA play. Untimely injuries were partially to blame for the lack of firepower. Zach Hrbacek, the leading rusher in 2022, returns after playing just five games last season. Two-time all-conference receiver Ife Adeyi is also back for a sixth year after a season-ending injury in Week Three.

But Sam Houston saw other players elevate in the wake of Hrbacek and Adeyi's absence. Now, they return side-by-side with guys on the mend. Noah Smith became the de facto No.1 wideout with 782 yards and six touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen likes to get Smith involved on jet sweeps (27 rushing attempts, 102 yards) and trick passes (3-for-4, 41 yards) as well. North Shore alum John Gentry compiled 653 all-purpose yards at running back.

Projected Starters

Position Player Year
QB Jase Bauer Jr.
RB Zach Hrbacek R-Jr.
WR Malik Phillips SR
WR Ife Adeyi R-Sr.
WR Noah Smith R-Sr.
TE Elijah Sohn R-Sr.
LT Graceson Jackson-Smith R-Jr.
LG MarKendrick Beall Sr
C Ethan Hagler R-Sr.
RG James Dawn II Jr
RT D'Ary Patton R-Jr.

Breakout Candidates

WR JyZaiah Rockwell – All of Sam Houston's projected starting wideouts are under 6-feet tall, but the 6-foot-3 Rockwell could provide a deep ball threat they didn't have last year. Sam Houston ranked eighth-to-last in the FBS with 6.0 yards per passing attempt. Rockwell played in 11 games last season but caught just seven passes for 42 yards.

RB Adrian Murdaugh – Murdaugh stands at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, but he's got a different gear than most running backs. The Conroe Oak Ridge product led all pill toters with 4.7 yards per carry, and he sparked the ground game against New Mexico State. Hrbacek and Gentry will get the majority of carries, but Murdaugh is a change-of-pace, home-run threat.

QB DJ Bailey – Sam Houston's going to have a quarterback battle to replace graduated senior Keegan Shoemaker (more on this later), and Bailey's signature to Sam Houston turned heads in the recruiting world as a potential steal. The two-time state champion from DeSoto threw for 6,858 yards, 85 touchdowns and four interceptions in two years. Whether he's ready for Division I ball right away will be the challenge.

Key Unit

Offensive Line – Sam Houston returns all of its lineman from last season, but the unit struggled with the FBS transition. The Bearkats ranked seventh-to-last in the nation with 2.9 rushing yards per attempt. Gentry ran violently and admirably - there was just nowhere to go. Head coach KC Keeler hired Kevin Schadt away from UTEP to run the strength and conditioning program. This will be an important offseason to physically rebuild the same line who was overmatched at times last season.

Biggest Question Mark

Quarterback – Shoemaker overcame a bumpy start to the season to finish with 2,506 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, giving Sam Houston plenty of chances to win games in Conference USA play. The Bearkats need to replace him and the leadership he displayed as a team captain. Grant Gunnell holds the Texas high school record for 16,108 passing yards at St. Pius X, but he's on his fourth college program and threw just 22 passes last season. But the team brought in Jase Bauer from Central Michigan for some starting experience as well as Hunter Watson from Iowa Western during the early signing period. Keep an eye on Bailey as a long-shot option.

Defensive Overview

Sam Houston might've been the second-most stingy 3-9 team behind the 2021 Nebraska squad that lost all nine contests by eight points or less. The Bearkats lost five games by one possession. While the offense endured a long adjustment to FBS ball, the defense was a quick study, finishing the season ranked fourth in Conference USA in scoring defense. The 2024 team, however, has some big shoes to fill, namely four-year captain Trevor Williams, whom Keeler referred to as the best linebacker he's ever coached.

Skyler Cassity comes from Abilene Christian to take over at defensive coordinator for the departing Joe Morris. At 29, he's the youngest DC in the FBS. He's got playmakers at all three levels. Linebacker Kavian Gaither is the unit's leader after finishing second on the team with 72 tackles, while Da'Marcus Crosby II returns off a First Team All-Conference USA selection at safety. Defensive end Jevon Leon is a former FCS All-American who should be back to full strength after battling injury last season.

Projected Starters

Position Player Year
DE Jevon Leon R-Sr.
NT Matthew Aribisala R-Jr.
DT Seth Mason GR
JACK Issiah Nixon Sr
LB Trey Fields R-Jr.
LB Kavian Gaither Sr
CB Da'Veawn Armstead Sr
CB David Fisher R-Jr.
S Elias Escobar R-Sr.
S Da'Marcus Crosby II Sr
NB Caleb Weaver R-Jr.

Breakout Candidates

Issiah Nixon – This is kind of cheating to select a projected starter as a breakout candidate, but Nixon's 2023 tape is so impressive showing off his hustle and motor. He led the team with five sacks and plays much bigger than his 6-foot-1, 240-pound frame. Nixon is a potential all-conference performer as a full-time starter in 2024.

Sincere Jackson – No one man can replace Williams's production, but Jackson might be a key piece in 2024. The redshirt senior caught fire late in the season with a forced fumble against Louisiana Tech and a 13-tackle performance against Middle Tennessee.

Dakerric Hobbs – Hobbs entered the starting role last season after cornerback Da'Veawn Armstead opted to utilize his redshirt after four games. He may be too talented to leave off the field. The Kilgore College transfer tied for the team lead with five passes defended and aced numerous tests in one-on-one coverage.

Key Unit

Defensive Line – Sam Houston managed a meager 17 sacks in 12 games last season and lost three of their top four sacks leaders. They also need to replace Akeem "Meatball" Smith and Chris Scott along the interior defensive line. Matthew Aribisala (11 tackles, two TFL) and Seth Mason (11 tackles, 2.5 TFL) have the early edge to start, but it might be a committee effort.

Biggest Question Mark

Second Linebacker – Williams was Sam Houston's best player at middle linebacker last year, but the Bearkats also lost outside linebacker Markel Perry (35 tackles, 4.5 TFL). Gaither is the new lead man, but Sincere Jackson and Trey Fields will compete for a greater role in 2024. 

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