SLU ranked in final FCS polls, looks to build on 2019 success
The 2019 season saw the Southeastern Louisiana football team return to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and finish ranked nationally in the final American Football Coaches Association Coaches and Stats Perform Football Championship Subdivision polls, which were released on Monday.
The polls were finalized after North Dakota State edged James Madison 28-20 on Saturday to win its third straight national championship. Southeastern was ranked No. 18 in the coaches poll, while finishing No. 19 in the Stats Perform Top 25.
The Lions returned to the FCS playoffs for the third time in program history and first time since 2014 under second-year head coach Frank Scelfo, the 2019 Southland Conference Coach of the Year. Southeastern finished 8-5 overall and was one of the last 16 teams remaining in the playoff bracket.
Southeastern Louisiana earned convincing wins over nationally-ranked Jacksonville State (34-14) and Central Arkansas (34-0). Both teams were ranked No. 6 at the time they faced Southeastern.
The Lions’ success versus top 10 teams continued in the playoffs. In the first-round matchup in Hammond, Southeastern Louisiana erased a 17-point deficit on the way to a 45-44 victory over No. 8 Villanova — the program’s first postseason victory since a 30-29 win over Sam Houston State in 2013. Southeastern’s season ended in the second round at No. 6 Montana.
Southeastern Louisiana’s success was fueled by one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Southeastern finished among the FCS leaders in passing offense (354.4 yards per game, No. 2), total offense (484.8 yards per game, No. 2), first downs (322, No. 5) and scoring offense (36.6 points per game, No. 12).
Quarterbacks Chason Virgil (3,791 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) and Cole Kelley (816 yards, 10 passing touchdowns, two interceptions, 10 rushing touchdowns) distributed the ball to FCS’ only receiving corps that featured five players with 500 or more receiving yards. Virgil finished in the FCS top 10 in passing yards (No. 3), completion percentage (65.5, No. 9), completions per game (23.92, No. 10) and passing yards per game (291.6, No. 10).
CJ Turner (78 catches, 963 yards, seven touchdowns), Devonte Williams (68 catches, 571 yards, three touchdowns), Austin Mitchell (57 catches, 896 yards, eight touchdowns), Javon Conner (57 catches, 679 yards, seven touchdowns) and Bransen Schwebel (50 catches, 609 yards, four touchdowns) were Southeastern Louisiana’s top receivers.
Williams (599 yards, eight touchdowns) also led Southeastern Louisiana’s rushing attack.
AFCA FCA All-American left tackle Pat Allen and his fellow All-Southland Conference teammate Jarius Gooch anchored the Southeastern offensive line. Virgil, Williams, Mitchell and Schwebel also were All-Southland honorees.
On the defensive side, first-year defensive coordinator Lance Guidry helped the Lions finish among the national leaders in sacks (No. 8 with 41) and tackles for loss (No. 9 with 107).
Consensus All-American Ferlando Jordan led the nation with three interceptions returned for touchdowns, while ranking fourth nationally in interceptions per game.
Jordan was one of four All-Southland defenders on the Lion roster. He was joined by Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund, Alexis Ramos and Xavier Lewis.
The on-field success also translated to the classroom. Thirty-nine Lion football players posted a 3.0 GPA or higher in the fall semester. Adeyemi-Berglund became the program’s first CoSIDA Academic All-American and was joined on the Southland All-Academic teams by Gooch and Taron Jones.
“Everybody — players and coaches — were ‘all-in’ and bought in to our philosophy and establishing a winning culture for our program this season,” Scelfo said in a news release. “We didn’t have that in my first year, but it started last spring and kept building throughout the season.”
Though Southeastern will be losing some key contributors from the 2019 squad to graduation, Scelfo said he is confident a solid foundation remains. The Lions started adding pieces for the 2020 season in December, as Southeastern Louisiana inked 16 players during the early signing period.
“Everybody in the country lost good players at the end of the season,” Scelfo said in a news release. “But we’re confident that we have guys who are willing to step up when the opportunity is presented. When you look at the 2019 team, we had guys like CJ Turner, Javon Conner, Rendon Miles-Character and Ronald Cherry III, just to name a few, who were given bigger opportunities and made the most of those chances.”
The injury bug hit Southeastern throughout the season, but the Lions maintained a next-man up philosophy. True freshmen Dontrell Smith, Herman Christophe, Dominic Lamm, Ed Magee, Gladar Huszar, Justin Douglas and J’vonte Powers all played in double-digit games in 2019, something that benefits the program moving forward, according to Scelfo.
“Ideally, maybe we don’t want to play as many freshmen as we did this year,” Scelfo said in a news release. “But the experience some of those new guys got this season is invaluable moving forward. To be able to play in the playoffs, compete for the conference championship, all those are experiences that these guys will be able to draw from as they become the future leaders of our program. It was special to see some of our new guys develop as the year progressed.”
The Lions had a 3-1 record versus nationally-ranked opposition and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the third time. While Scelfo was pleased with the progress made in year two, he wants the program’s growth to continue.
“We have to continue to recruit well and increase our overall talent level,” Scelfo said in the news release. “We made some good steps forward this year, but we want being in the playoffs to be the norm moving forward.
“Our success this season was because our players and coaching staff all bought in to establishing a winning culture,” Scelfo added. “Culture is not a buzz word for our program but a way of life. It’s about holding yourself and the other members of our program accountable. It’s about practicing hard every day. It’s about representing our program the right way on and off the field. We took the first step in establishing that culture this season, and that’s why we won more than we lost.”
Patterson High alum Tarence Calais is the Lions’ defensive backs coach.
Southeastern will conclude its 2020 signing class on Feb. 5. Plans for Signing Day festivities will be finalized and released in the coming days. Spring practice opens on March 3. The Lions will open the 2020 schedule on Sept. 3 at in-state foe Tulane.