HAMMOND, La. – Amidst the myriad of new faces on the Strawberry Stadium turf when the Southeastern Louisiana football team opened fall practice on Wednesday evening, the presence of a pair of returning seniors was a welcome sight to Lion coaches and teammates alike.
The 2013 and 2014 Southeastern football teams won consecutive Southland Conference championships, thanks in large part to the chunks of yardage SLU was able to gain on the ground with its unrelenting rushing attack. Two of the key cogs in the Lion ground game were running back Rasheed Harrell and fullback Juwaan Rogers.
Both Harrell and Rogers missed the 2015 season and were relegated to the sidelines as the Lions slipped down the stretch and finished a disappointing 4-7. But with the 2016 season opener a month away, both seniors are poised to be major acts on Southeastern’s Redemption Tour.
Harrell, a native of Miami, Florida, is eager to cap a fine collegiate career with a strong final campaign. The elusive runner out of Northwestern High School is ready to return to the form that allowed him to amass 1,429 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career and earn All-Southland Conference honors as a sophomore. Harrell’s slick moves are expected to be an effective compliment to the punishing running style of fellow veterans Julius Maracalin and Eugene Bethea.
“We have a great group of running backs and we’re all unique,” Harrell commented. “It really all starts with our offensive line and the great job they do opening holes. From there it’s just our job to make something positive happen.
“It was tough watching from the sideline last year, because I really wanted to get back out there,” Harrell added. “But watching allowed me to learn so much about my game and now it’s time to use what I learned.”
While Rogers is not a primary ball carrier for the Lions, there’s no discounting the effect on the ground game that the Amite, Louisiana native – who head coach Ron Roberts has called ‘one of the best fullbacks in the nation’ – has when fully healthy. After suffering a season-ending injury in the 2015 season opener at Northwestern State, the former Amite Warrior worked diligently to get back for 2016. A blend of speed and power, Rogers wowed teammates by cutting a couple of flips following an offseason workout, displaying not only health, but also athleticism that belied his 245-pound frame.
“I’m glad to be back after missing last season,” Rogers told the media contingent at last month’s Southland Conference Media Day in Lake Charles. “Our athletic training staff and strength coaches helped me tremendously in my rehab. I’m healthy, ready to start fall camp and have a great senior season.”
Roberts is excited about the return of Harrell and Rogers. The Lions’ fifth-year head coach expects his team to reap the benefits both on and off the field.
“Rasheed and Juwaan are both fifth-year seniors who have been there and were both significant parts of our two conference championships, so from a leadership standpoint to have them back is huge,” Roberts said. “We know those are two guys we can trust when the lights go on and have proven they have what it takes to perform at a high level in the Southland Conference.”
First-year running backs coach Joe Graves echoed many of Roberts’ sentiments. Graves, a multi-time All-Southland offensive lineman for the Lions before joining the coaching staff following graduation, has been a teammate of both Harrell and Rogers and is well aware of what they bring to the table.
“As a player, Rasheed takes care of business on the field and takes a great deal of pride in his craft,” Graves said. “He’s just as valuable in the meeting room. He’s a high energy guy who is always positive. Plus, he bring a lot of experience to that room. He’s a former all-conference player who has been on championship teams as the No. 1 running back.”
While Graves doesn’t have Rogers in his positional meeting room, he’s well aware of the benefits Rogers brings to the team.
“I’ve known Juwaan well over these past few years and he’s always putting the extra work to continue to improve,” Graves said. “His leadership and experience are very important to our team. When he says something, whether it be in the locker room, a team meeting or on the field, his teammates listen. Juwaan’s earned everyone’s respect.”
With a high number of newcomers on the roster, Harrell realizes the responsibilities that he, Rogers and the Lion senior class has to step us as leaders.
“I try to help keep our running backs positive and help the younger guys any way I can,” Harrell said. “Our job as seniors is to lead by example. Our coaches want us to compete and be great. To do that, we have to put in the work and our seniors and veterans need to set that standard.”
The Lions will return to the practice field on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Strawberry Stadium. Practices are open to Touchdown Club members only.
The 2016 season officially kicks off on Sept. 3, when the Lions travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma to face OSU at 2:30 p.m.
The Lions’ five-game home schedule opens on Sept. 24, when they welcome league rival Northwestern State for a 6 p.m. contest. Season tickets are available by contacting the Southeastern Athletics Ticket Office at (985) 549-5466 or visiting LionSports.net and LionUp.com.