Here are the top returning players and predicted order of finish in the SLC.
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Returning All-Conference Players
From last season’s All-Southland Team
Southeastern Louisiana – 7: OL John Allen (1st Team), P Austin Dunlap (1st Team), DL Arlen Williams (2nd Team), K Riley Callaghan (2nd Team), LB Donte’ Daniels (2nd Team), OL Jhy Orgeron (2nd Team), TE Ivan Drobocky (2nd Team)
Nicholls – 3: OL Evan Roussel (1st Team), DB Jordan Jackson (2nd Team), DL Perry Ganci (2nd Team)
Houston Christian – 2: LB Rodney Dansby (1st Team), DL Jalyx Hunt (2nd Team)
Northwestern State – 2: TE Travon Jones (1st Team), WR Zach Patterson (2nd Team)
McNeese – 1: K Garrison Smith (1st Team)
Incarnate Word – 1: DL Steven Parker (1st Team)
Lamar – 0
Texas A&M-Commerce – 0
Teams Bringing In The Most D1 Transfers
Incarnate Word – 23 (20 FBS, 3 FCS)
Northwestern State – 15 (9 FBS, 6 FCS)
Houston Christian – 11 (5 FBS, 6 FCS)
Lamar – 11 (8 FBS, 3 FCS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: John Allen, Southeastern Louisiana OL – Allen is HERO Sports’ No. 10 returning offensive lineman in the FCS after being named Southland Conference Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2022. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound Allen started 12 games at left guard last season as the Lions rolled up 35.3 PPG and 439.8 YPG, both of which ranked top-20 nationally. His consistency loomed large for a SLU team that dealt with early-season injuries to other starting linemen.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Rodney Dansby, Houston Christian LB – Dansby reassumes his title as SLC top defensive player after earning a HERO Sports Sophomore All-American nod last season. Dansby broke on the scene with his 131 tackles as a freshman in fall 2021, following it up with 2022’s 125 total stops. Dansby’s 256 tackles in the last two seasons combined trail only Fordham’s James Conway (258). The Husky junior snatched an interception and owned two fumble recoveries in ’22.
TOP NFL PROSPECT: Jalyx Hunt, Houston Christian DL – Hunt, in his first season at HCU after spending three years/two seasons (COVID 2020-21) at Cornell, tied to lead the SLC in tackles for loss (11.5), earned the sole lead in forced fumbles (3), and tied for second in the league in sacks (7). Hunt was announced as a 2024 Reese’s Senior Bowl Watchlist pick, adding to his stock as a Shrine Bowl 1000 selection. The 6-foot-4, 248-pound edge-type is Josh Buchanan’s No. 29 2024 small-school prospect as of August 22.
HERO Sports’ Predicted Order of Finish
- Incarnate Word
- Southeastern Louisiana University
- Northwestern State
- Texas A&M-Commerce
- Houston Christian
The Southland is one of the most fascinating FCS races this season. UIW and SLU have been the class of the league in recent years, carrying SLC-signature high-powered offenses into the postseason.
Incarnate Word nearly gave the conference its landmark playoff win post-Sam Houston when the Cardinals threatened North Dakota State in their 2022 three-point semifinal loss in the Fargodome. Questions arise for UIW because its quarterback, leading rusher, and leading receiver in that game are all gone, as are the majority of the Cards’ All-SLC picks. The roster openings were filled in large part by Incarnate Word’s whopping 20 FBS transfers, including Auburn’s Zach Calzada, a former starting quarterback at Texas A&M.
Pulling the portal strings for UIW is head coach Clint Killough, who was promoted from his post as associate head coach and wide receivers coach. Sure, Killough is The Word’s third head coach in three seasons after Eric Morris (2021) and GJ Kinne (2022), but both Morris and Kinne were hired away upon the success of UIW. The ascension of the program from being an FCS Independent in 2013, just entering Division I, to its status today is astounding. Killough is a UIW alumnus who played for the Cardinals from 2013 to 2015, later returning as a quality control coach in 2018 under Morris. He will oversee continuity in UIW’s culture and is more likely to stick around in San Antonio than his predecessors and former bosses.
Incarnate Word’s chief challenger is Southeastern Louisiana, which has rivaled UIW in SLC prestige of late.
Frank Scelfo’s Lions have made the playoffs in two straight and three of the last four seasons, reaching the second round each time. Remarkably, SLU boasts the Southland’s First and Second Team Preseason All-Conference QBs in Northwestern State transfer Zachary Clement and returner Eli Sawyer, respectively. Sawyer threw for 1,605 yards, 11 touchdowns, and one interception in 10 games played with one start in 2022.
While Southeastern’s QB depth is unrivaled in its conference, the front end of its schedule is a mean one. The Lions open with consecutive FBS games at Mississippi State and South Alabama before trekking to Eastern Washington. Their second SLC game comes Oct. 7 at UIW. While SLU, with its Southland-leading seven all-conference returnees, should emerge from the back end of the schedule no worse than second in the league, the early-going will be worth monitoring.
Beyond the consensus top two of the SLC, Texas A&M-Commerce (5-6 in 2022) could be a riser, but it lost its last four games, lost its All-SLC players, and opposed two non-DI foes a year ago. Whether A&M-Commerce can carry over its Southland-best ’22 scoring defense (19.9 PPG) is an open question.
Overall, the 2023 Southland season will see A&M-Commerce, despite its personnel losses, look to join Nicholls, McNeese, and Clement-less Northwestern State in jockeying to disrupt UIW and SLU. As noted above, Houston Christian has two of the best defenders in the conference on its side, giving it the edge over Lamar to avoid the cellar. HCU really ought to capitalize on its defensive tandem while it can, but the SLC path is formidable for such an underdog.