In a game loaded with statistics and numbers, Northeastern State football coach John Horner would like to try this one out for public consumption: This is the first season that the coach has had returning players that he originally recruited.

“We’ve never had that before,” Horner said. “We feel like that’s going to pay off.”

“You see the puzzle starting to come together. We’ve had a plan in place. We’ve stuck to that. We’ve taken our lumps with it... but we’re starting to come together. The plan is starting to take shape.”

As the 2006 season kicks off Thursday at 7 p.m. in Russellville, Ark. against Arkansas Tech, Horner has taken solace in this fact, hoping that the system he installed four years ago will start producing fruitful results — namely, victories.

During his first three years as in Tahlequah, the Redmen have gone a collective 5-25. Out of those five wins, only one occurred away from Doc Wadley Stadium. In 2005, the 14-game losing streak was snapped but unfortunately for the Northeastern State football fans, the team had little else to celebrate on its way to a 2-8 record.

NSU has attempted to start fresh by giving last year’s starters no guarantee that they would start in 2006. What resulted was a collection of competitions from incoming freshman and other players looking to make a name for themselves.

“I think it’s made it better because we’re all battling for spots,” said Jeramy Branchcomb, a Hilldale graduate who is trying to beat out fellow sophomore Warren Kirk and freshman Colby Bryant for the starting tight end job. “Nothing’s been handed to us.”

Although senior Dustin Workman finished fifth in the Lone Star Conference in passing with 201.8 yards per game, Horner said that the starting quarterback would not be revealed until the Redmen take the field for the opener. Redshirt freshman William Cole and junior Joe Hogan, a Sallisaw native, are the other two candidates for the job.

Whoever is named as quarterback will have the comfort knowing that the team is returning its top three receivers from last season in junior Jarrett Byers, junior Ellis Bruner and senior Cord Chavat. Byers finished first in the conference in receiving in 2005 by recording an average of 99.6 receiving yards per game last season while also catching nine touchdowns.

NSU will feature a different offensive scheme this season as first year offensive coordinator Garin Higgins returns to Tahlequah after serving as a graduate assistant from 1992-94. Under the new system, the team will rely on establishing a running first and foremost while passing only when needed. Horner said that ideally his team would only throw 25 times a game and no more than 40.

This should bode well for redshirt freshman Marquise Dansby and junior Erick Hatchett, who will try to fill the void left by Brandon Ishem. The departed senior collected 1,031 rushing yards last season before being named a first team all-LSC selection.

The Redmen head into the season with a fleet of sophomores, such as Branchcomb, who became a part of NSU’s program at the same time that Horner did in 2003. This is especially true on the defense, where three sophomores (Bryan Blue, Broderick Mondy, Colby Onic) topped the list of the most recent depth chart released by the team out of the five positions in the secondary. All three saw considerable playing time as redshirt freshmen last year, but now the team hopes they will be able to bring their collective experience to the table for a unit that gave up the most amount of points in the conference last season (32.2 points per game).

“The biggest thing is experience,” Horner said of the defense, “and not having to correct someone every third play.”

The defense will anchored by a quartet of seasoned linebackers. Although NSU’s main defensive scheme only calls for two linebackers, the foursome of Kevin Christian (a four-year starter who’s been in the system for five years), Shane Cates (in the system for four years), Kyle Murray (four years) and Larry Veazia (three years) will be counted on as the collective rock of the defense.

“We got depth and if somebody gets tired we can get the next person right in and it won’t be a drop (in skill),” said Christian, who was a second team all-LSC selection last season. “Everybody’s pretty equal as far as talent-wise.”

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