Harding Football Picked Second in GAC Preseason Poll
August 5, 2016 at 5:21 PM CDT - Updated July 11 at 4:32 PM
RUSSELLVILLE, Ark.- Following a league-wide vote of the Great American Conference's 12 football coaches, Henderson State, the 2015 GAC champions, will enter 2016 as the pick the win the conference after receiving 10 first-place votes, the league announced on Thursday.
The Reddies posted an 11-2 record in 2015 to claim their third GAC title. They won the program's and the GAC's first Division II Playoff game, a 23-16 victory against Sioux Falls. Henderson State returns six 2015 First-Team All-GAC selections, highlighted by GAC Player of the Year JaQuan Cole and linebacker Josh Davis, a unanimous selection. Cole rushed for a GAC-leading 1,189 yards and added eight touchdowns. Davis registered 103 tackles and 15.0 tackles for loss. Additional returning First-Team selections for the Reddies include center Cory Stitle, special teams player James Jackson, safety Gary Vines and kicker Houston Ray. Vines picked off four passes leading a defense that paced Division II with 29 interceptions. Ray converted a GAC-leading 16 points and ranked second in points for kickers with 87.
Harding took second in the poll. The Bisons went 7-4 with all four losses decided by eight points or less. They produced the top scoring offense in the GAC and their potent flexbone rushing attack ranked second in the nation in yards per game and in rushing touchdowns. Harding returns over 80 percent of its rushing production, led by quarterback Park Parish and running backsMichael Latu and Zach Shelley. The trio combined for almost 2,400 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns. On the defensive side, First-Team defensive endTrevon Biglow returns for his senior season. His 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles both ranked second in the conference.
Ouachita placed third, followed closely by Southwestern Oklahoma State. The Tigers registered a 7-4 record, their eighth-straight winning season. Running back Kris Oliver burst onto the scene as he amassed 1,176 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in his freshman season. He earned the Don Hansen National Freshman of the Year honor.
The Bulldogs finished in a two-way tie with Arkansas Tech for second place in the regular season. Led by GAC Coach Dan Cocannouer, SWOSU earned a trip to the Live United Bowl, the program's first postseason game since 1996. D.J. Jones, an All-American returner and wide receiver set the school and GAC single-season record for all-purpose yards, 1,802, and scored nine times.
Southern Arkansas edged out Arkansas Tech for fifth place in the voting. The Muleriders turned in a 7-4 season led by standout freshman performances by quarterback Barrett Renner and defensive lineman Davondrick Lison. Renner became the first freshman QB in Division II to reach the 3,000-yard milestone since 2012 and his 33 touchdowns ranked as the seventh-most in the nation. Lison registered seven forced fumbles to lead Division II and place him second in all of college football.
The Wonder Boys reached the nine-win plateau for just the 10th time in the program's 101-year history. They capped the season with a win at the C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl. As a freshman, Bryan Allen led the GAC in rushing yards per game, 115.0 and gained 1,150 yards. Three First-Team All-GAC selections return for Tech in Chris Eastburn, Clayton Watson and Demetris Ford. Watson ranked second in the nation in punting average.
Southeastern Oklahoma State took seventh with East Central in eighth. Only two points separated the long-standing rivals. Both teams put together 6-5 seasons in 2015. ECU's record-setting wide receiver David Moore returns for his senior campaign. Last year, he became the first Tiger receiver to record a 1,000-yard season.
Northwestern Oklahoma State placed ninth, one point ahead of Oklahoma Baptist and five in front of Arkansas-Monticello with Southern Nazarene rounding out the poll. Ranger All-American Joby Saint Fleur returns for his senior season after he collected 10.5 sacks in 2015. The Crimson Storm hired Andy Lambert as the program's fourth head coach.
The 2016 season opens on Thursday, September 1 with five contests. Arkansas Tech hosts Southern Nazarene; Arkansas-Monticello travels to Northwestern Oklahoma State; East Central visits Ouachita; Henderson State welcomes in Southeastern Oklahoma State and Southwestern Oklahoma State takes on Southern Arkansas. The opening weekend concludes on Saturday when Harding faces Oklahoma Baptist.
On Saturday, September 10, ECU and Henderson State will partake in the Division II Football Showcase with the American Sports Network carrying the game from Ada. This game represents the fourth-straight year that a GAC contest has aired on national television. The Tigers gave the Reddies their lone regular-season loss, a 35-28 decision in Arkadelphia.