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story.lead_photo.caption Bill Keopple, head football coach at Southern Arkansas University, speaks during a Texarkana Muleriders Club event at the Texarkana Convention Center.

If Southern Arkansas contends for the Great American Conference championship this fall, improved defense will likely be the reason.

The Muleriders topped the 12-team GAC in total offensive yards per game last season (471.3) and ranked third in scoring average (35.5 points), behind record-setting quarterback Barrett Renner.

Southern Arkansas

MASCOT Muleriders

COACH Bill Keopple (33-39 in eighth season at Southern Arkansas and overall)

LAST SEASON 7-4 overall, 7-4 in the Great American Conference

OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH QB Barrett Renner

DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH S Elgin Moore

NOTEWORTHY Southern Arkansas hasn’t had a losing season since 2011. … Junior safety Elgin Moore has five interceptions in 21 career games. … Sophomore defensive lineman Malachi Pointer of Dumas, who played in eight games in 2014, has rejoined the program after missing last season because of academics, SAU Coach Bill Keopple said. … Sophomore wide receiver Karonce Higgins of Searcy won the long jump (23 feet, 11 inches), was second in the 200 (21.15) and fifth in the 100 (10.59) in May’s inaugural GAC Track and Field Championships. … Redshirt freshman linebacker Dominique Scott of Little Rock Parkview won the Little Rock Touchdown Club’s James Street Award (sportsmanship) when it was handed out for the first time in 2014.

SCHEDULE

All times Central

DATE;OPPONENT;TIME

Sept. 1;at SW Oklahoma*;6 p.m.

Sept. 10;NW Oklahoma*;6 p.m.

Sept. 17;at Harding*;6 p.m.

Sept. 24;Arkansas Tech*;6 p.m.

Oct. 1;S. (Okla.) Nazarene*;2:30 p.m.

Oct. 8;at Okla.Baptist*;2 p.m.

Oct. 15;at Ouachita Baptist*;1 p.m.

Oct. 22;vs. Henderson State*#;2 p.m.

Oct. 29;SE Okla. St.*;2 p.m.

Nov. 5;at E. Central Okla.*;2 p.m.

Nov. 12;at UA-Monticello*;3 p.m.

*Great American Conference game at Memorial Stadium, El Dorado

Defensive numbers weren't nearly as glowing.

SAU (7-4) ranked seventh in total defense (396 yards per game), eighth in scoring defense (30.8) and safeties Elgin Moore and Q'Niko Thomas -- both returning starters this season -- led the team in tackles.

Painful snapshots included surrendering 566 rushing yards to Harding in a 70-42 loss and being beaten 29-28 by eventual GAC champion Henderson when the Reddies drove 94 yards in the game's final 1:40 to win on the final play.

"There's no doubt we've got to get better on the defensive side of the ball," Muleriders Coach Bill Keopple said. "We think we have."

Keopple said growing pains contributed to the struggles last fall, noting his starting defensive ends in Game 1 were freshmen.

But Keopple said he believes this year's defense could be "more along the lines" of his 2012 version, when SAU finished 8-3 and played in the Heart of Texas Bowl.

"It's more experience and getting the physicality and speed of the game," Keopple said. "That's the biggest thing."

Defensive returnees include Moore (93 tackles and four interceptions in 2015) and sophomore end Davondrick Lison of McGehee, who had a team-high nine sacks.

Moore, a junior, was second-team All-GAC last season.

The Muleriders figure to be potent again on offense after ranking 20th nationally last season in NCAA Division II in average total yards per game.

Seven offensive starters return, including Renner, who threw for 3,333 yards and ran for 380.

Renner, 6-3, 192 pounds, was the 2015 GAC Freshman of the Year and first-team all-GAC after setting single-season school records for total offense (3,713 yards), completions (252), passing attempts (405) and touchdown passes (33).

His return, Keopple said, is "huge for the psyche of our football team."

"He's got some special skills," Keopple said. "Obviously, he can see things. He can process things very quickly, quicker than any quarterback I've ever had. And we've had some good ones."

Keopple said he believes Renner, who throws left-handed, can be more effective this fall because of experience in the offensive line (three starters return) and at receiver.

Sophomore wideout Karonce Higgins of Searcy averaged 22.7 yards per catch last season and is among the fastest players in the GAC.

Also returning is junior wide receiver Jonathan Weisheit (a team-high 49 receptions last fall) and junior tight end Tanner Hudson (44 receptions).

Keopple said beefing up the running game was an emphasis in the spring. Up front, Keopple said SAU possesses the most overall physical strength in his seven years as the school's coach.

"This should be our best team since 2012 -- definitely -- outside a rash of injuries hitting us all of sudden," Keopple said. "Knock on wood, we've been very good through fall camp. Right now, we're as healthy as we've ever been going into the first game since I've been here."

UP NEXT Arkansas Tech

Sports on 08/29/2016

Print Headline: SAU needs help from the defense

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