On the heels of back-to-back losing seasons, including last year's 3-8 ledger, the Redhawks are hoping for a turnaround with 15 returning starters.
But head coach Tim Billings, heading into his sixth year at SEMO, says no position is solidified just yet.
"We've got 15 guys that started for us, but I don't know about returning starters," said Billings. "We lost a lot of really good players last year. We have a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball. We're going to be really young this year. I really feel like we're athletic. The enthusiasm has been there and we've been working hard. We've got a lot of new coaches too. It's been a good fall camp so far. I'm excited about the enthusiasm and the athletic ability of our football team."
With six new coaches on board, the Redhawks will have to get acclimated to new blood on the staff.
"Myself, coach (Mike) Chavez and coach (Kip) Shaw are the only guys that have been here the whole time Rob Liken's first year was last year," said Billings. "We've got about six other coaches that are new. Getting used to new coaches -- that's part of it. I don't know if it's difficult or not. One thing about it is these guys have brought in new life, new enthusiasm and some new ideas that these kids have taken hold of. It's a building process and I think it's been a positive for our football team."
The Indians lost quarterback Andrew Goodenough, but Billings already has a starter in mind for the upcoming season in Mike Haley, a 6-foot-6, 225-
pound senior from Santa Monica Community College.
Kevin Ballatore, a junior college transfer from Santa Rosa Community College, is slated as the backup right now.
"We've got Mike Haley back and right now he's the starter," said Billings. "Kevin Ballatore has really pushed him. They're both playing really well. We have a couple freshmen we like but they're physically not with these two guys right now. Hopefully we can play them both early just to make sure they have some playing experience when we get into conference play. But right now Mike's our starting quarterback."
The Redhawks also are thin on experience at running back. Elton Peterson, a 5-6, 155-pound junior, is the top returner as far as experience with 60 yards on 24 carries last year.
"The only returning running back we have is Elton Peterson," said Billings. "Adam Schwent is back but he was redshirted last year from Ste. Gen. We brought in some junior college kids and a few high school kids that will push at that position."
The Redhawks do appear to be set at the wide receiver positions with three experienced returners in Oge Oge, Brian Matthews and Jamel Oliver, all of which saw extensive playing time last year.
Matthews caught 39 passes for 446 yards and five scores while Oge followed up with 33 catches for 426 yards and three scores. Oliver caught 45 passes for 278 yards.
"I think our skill guys on offense are a strength," said Billings. "Last year we were solid there, but I think we've added some speed and athleticism to our skill position on offense. That's a big plus for us."
But the biggest question marks on the team come on the defensive side of the ball.
"We're real young on the defensive side of the ball," said Billings. "We've got a lot of guys competing for jobs. Experience-wise we don't have a lot of it, but I feel we're real athletic there. We're just going to have to develop as we go."
The Redhawks do return some experience in the secondary with free safety Mike Miller (86 tackles, three interceptions) and North County product Reggie AuBuchon (72 tackles, four interceptions) from his strong safety position
Romae Rucker and Missouri Southern transfer Monroe Hicks, a Cape Central grad, will man the other two corner positions.
But Billings hinted that the team might be thin on the front seven, particularly on stopping opposing run offenses.
"We don't know how we can defend the run -- I think that's going to be a big question mark for us this year," said Billings.
One area the Redhawks can rest easy, though, is on special teams where they return All-American punter David Simonhoff, who set SEMO and Ohio Valley Conference records by averaging 46 yards per punt. He had a long punt of 83 yards as a freshman and 82 yards as a sophomore.
Simonhoff, a junior, is a consensus preseason All-American this season.
However, he is the only SEMO player to be named to the preseason All-OVC team this year.
The Redhawks, who have had just two winning seasons in the last 14 years, are once again projected near the bottom of the OVC -- eighth out of nine teams.
SEMO will be tested with a difficult early-season schedule, which includes nationally ranked Southern Illinois, Division I-A Kent State and Missouri State, formerly known as Southwest Missouri State. The Redhawks then open OVC play with perennial power Jacksonville State.
"I don't know about our OVC chances," said Billings. "I think the first three weeks we'll see how we develop as a football team.
"We'll know real quick. We have Jacksonville State here the first game, we're talking about the two-time defending champions. I think we'll find out pretty quick if we're a contender or pretender this year."