Insider Notes: Tidbits from DCTF's Sam Houston Bearkats stop - can the same team take new strides?

Photo by Carter Yates

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A visit to Sam Houston's football facilities is a reminder that FBS transitions are an extensive undertaking. And they take time. 

Construction workers brought a crane into practice to take down the scoreboard. Pickup trucks drove back and forth around the track that outlines Sam Houston's football field. The track will be removed as soon as spring ball concludes and the field turf, which still has a blue outline from the Bearkats' color scheme before 2020, replaced.

While the facilities undergo an extreme makeover, Sam Houston's football team has the same cast of characters. They're one of the only FBS teams who haven't lost a player in the transfer portal (knock on wood; the spring window is now open).

But don't mistake the continuity for a lack of evolution. Sam Houston was within one score in the fourth quarter in seven games. KC Keeler decided to push spring football back to the latest it's ever been so his players could attack the weight room for eight straight weeks with new strength and conditioning coach Kevin Schadt. They've also switched to a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday practice schedule so they can lift Monday-Wednesday-Friday. 

During my magazine stop, I spoke to head coach KC Keeler, offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen, defensive coordinator Skyler Cassity, wide receiver Noah Smith and linebacker Kavian Gaither. I got a sense the team knew how close it was to competing while taking accountability for its shortcomings. 


  • The quarterback battle is a three-man race that will likely extend deep into fall camp. The coaches feel they have their leader on the roster, they just don't know who it is yet. Grant Gunnell is an incumbent who backed up Keegan Shoemaker last season. Jase Bauer and Hunter Watson are two transfers Cornelsen is getting up to speed. Both are stout: Bauer is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, while Watson is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. Coaches say opponents who played Bauer in the Mid-American Conference while at Central Michigan thought he was a solid option who could flourish with the right talent around him. Coaches say they believe people missed on Watson, who started his career at Iowa Western Community College and then played Division II ball at Arkansas-Monticello.
  • Zach Hrbacek was the team's leading rusher two years ago, but missed most of last season due to injury and has been sidelined all spring. That's allowed Sam Houston's two freshmen, DJ McKinney and Landan "Coco" Brown, to take the majority of reps. John Gentry, last year's leading rusher, is known as the "OG" of the group and is a steady presence. The coaches were hoping for a big spring from Adrian Murdaugh, a former walk-on receiver who showed great burst last season after swtiching to tailback, but he's been banged up. 
  • The wide receiver room is the deepest and most talented on the team, but seven of nine are injured and not participating right now. All are expected back for the season, but Sam Houston's brought on walk-ons and even moved a student-intern to wide receiver so they can have a full practice. Ife Adeyi and Qua'Vez Humphreys, who combined to play three games last season due to injury, give Sam Houston two deep threats they sorely missed last season. That, combined with an inability to run the ball, forced the Bearkats to develop into a quick-pass team heavily reliant on Noah Smith. Every person I spoke to brought up freshman Lonnie Adkism as a potential breakout candidate. Injuries have allowed him to work with the No.1 offense all spring.
  • The offensive line returns all five starters, but that doesn't mean they're guaranteed spots. Sam Houston averaged 88 yards per game. In fact, every position on the offensive side is still up for grabs. The coaches think the line has had a good offseason and spring practice. I'd bet Sam Houston looks in the transfer portal for another linemen when the spring window opens. They also might go for another running back.
  • Fernando Garza is a name to watch in the tight end room. The Texas A&M transfer is a throwback style player who can get in-line with the offensive line and block in the run game, something Sam Houston didn't have as much last season. 


  • New defensive coordinator Skyler Cassity will base out of a 4-2-5, with an emphasis on playing fast and simple. At 29, he's the youngest defensive coordinator in the FBS, but he has an extensive playbook. His father, Mike, was a Division I defensive coordinator for 22 seasons.
  • Sam Houston loves its edge defenders at this point in the process. Redshirt senior Jevon Leon is a program stalwart, while Issiah Nixon had a strong 2023 campaign and has built off it in spring football. Chris Murray, a former TCU transfer, has made the most significant strides. He was mentioned as a breakout candidate compared to the stats he put up last season. Murray looked the part on the field, having stacked 15 pounds of good weight.
  • Defensive tackle was a potential concern heading into spring ball after losing two starters from last year. The coaches love how they've performed and think there are four guys who can play. This might be a potential portal play in the spring window.
  • Cassity loves linebackers who can run, and Kavian Gaither fits that mold. The coaches say this is his team and have high confidence in him. He was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago and played well last year, although he was sometimes outshined because departing senior Trevor Williams seemingly made every tackle.
  • The defensive back room is the deepest and most veteran heavy on the team. De'Veawn Armstead redshirted last year after playing in the first four games. The former TCU transfer has NFL quality length at the corner spot, and Sam Houston will ask him to go on an island. Da'Marcus Crosby II was a breakout player at safety last season. The coaches are asking him to work new coverages in addition to sticking his nose in the run game. Between returners David Fisher, Caleb Weaver and Liberty transfer Jaylon Jimmerson the Bearkats will be juniors and seniors across the board in the backend.

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