Aug. 24, 2014
BEAUMONT, Texas -
The 2014 version of the Lamar Cardinals return with the knowledge that they lost all four starters from a season ago. Among the returning redbirds, there is a grand total of four starts between them. But before the fans of the Red and White begin the collective "woe is me" pity party, there is something they should know.
The Lamar secondary returns one of the most versatile players at the NCAA FCS level in 6-0, 210-pound Houston native Kevin Johnson. Along with Johnson, the Cardinals return some veterans who began to shine during spring ball, and an influx of newcomers who the coaching staff feels will not only hold their own, but once again compete to be the Southland Conference's top passing defense.
Blessed with physical attributes that arguably similar to, or better than, 2013 NFL first round selections Calvin Pryor and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Johnson has the ability to be a game changer on the defensive side of the ball.
Johnson came to Lamar for the 2012 season and had an immediate impact as a receiver, earning Southland Newcomer of the Year honors. Midway through last year, Johnson was moved from receiver to safety where he settled into the position with 18 tackles and a team-high two interceptions.
"At the end of the day, I just focus on playing football," said Johnson. "I just want to be on the field and help this team win. Whenever my number is called I've got to be ready to do is asked of me, no matter where I'm playing. I feel like I can make plays on either side of the ball, so I've used the spring and this fall camp to focus on the defense and now I need to take what I've learned carry that over into the season."
All of this while he has re-written the Lamar record books as a return specialist. A preseason All-American, Johnson will look to maintain the form on special teams that earned him CFPA National Punt Returner of the Year last season.
"Kevin is a big, strong guy who has a lot of range," said first-year Lamar secondary coach Ben Beasley
. "His knowledge as a receiver is really going to help in the secondary. It's a completely different perspective than a guy who just concentrates on one side of the ball his whole career. That is going to be a huge advantage for him."
For the Cardinals to lead the Southland in pass defense for a third season, they will need several young players to step up. One of those players who began to shine in spring drills, and hasn't disappointed during fall camp has been sophomore Xavier Bethany. At 6-1, 195 pounds, the Burton, Texas native played in all 12 games last season, but was a reserve to a senior-laden secondary that consisted of two all-conference players.
"Xavier is really coming along," said Beasley. "He is becoming more confident in his knowledge of the schemes and has really improved on the field. Xavier is just one of several young guys who has the opportunity to be a special player."
Both Bethany and Johnson are the leaders to start at the safety positions, while sophomore Colby Campbell and transfer DaQuan Stewart will also be in the rotation. Campbell played nine games last season working his way into the starting lineup. He finished the year with 20 tackles, half of which were solo stops. A New Jersey native, Stewart makes his way to Beaumont by way of Contra Costa College where he recorded 68 tackles, including 16 for loses last season.
If the safeties appeared young with only one senior, then the corners are equally as young with only one senior. As the Cardinals break fall camp junior college transfer Seth Ellis and sophomore Lloyd Julian appear to be the top candidates to get the start at the corners, with sophomore Tommie Barrett and senior Montez Hunter in the rotation. Both Julian and Hunter earned starts in their rookie seasons with the Cardinals.
"The good thing that we've done here is rotate different guys in with different units throughout camp," said Beasley. "That has helped these guys grow together, and we are really starting to see them gel on the field. We're progressively getting there. What is helping us is we've had these guys playing different positions. It makes us more multiple in the things we can do."
Despite the overall youth of the secondary, the confidence exists among the players that the talent is in place to be among the best in the Southland.
"We can be very good," said Johnson. "We have a lot of young, hungry guys back there, and guys who are willing to work. Along with that, we have a lot of speed in the secondary. When you have a bunch of guys who are willing to work hard, the sky is the limit."