BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Despite having 56 returning lettermen and 15 returning starters from a team that finished 9-2 last season and earned a share of a second straight Gulf South Conference Championship, the University of North Alabama has been picked to finish third in the 2015 GSC race in a pre-season poll of the league's head football coaches.
West Georgia is the pre-season GSC favorite,getting five of the seven first-place votes and 34 points in the voting. The Wolves finished third in the GSC last season but advanced to the semifinals of the Division II Playoffs. Delta State was picked second with one first-place vote and 30 points. UNA received the final first-place vote and 29 total points.
The Lions were followed by Valdosta State in fifth place (19), Florida Tech sixth (17), West Alabama seventh (12) and Shorter eighth (6).
UNA, trying to become just the third squad to win three straight GSC football crowns, is a pre-season Top 25 pick nationally by Lindy's Sports (fifth) and the Sporting News (16th).
"I think numerous teams could have been picked anywhere from one to six," said UNA head coach Bobby Wallace. "To be honest, I'm just as worried about playing every single team in this league as any other. There isn't one team that you won't have to be ready to play against. The run West Georgia made last year makes them well deserving of being picked first, and we haven't beaten Delta State in two years. Our players know that whatever we do this year, we will have to earn it."
UNA had seven Lions named to the pre-season All-GSC squad, led by three-time All-GSC running back Lamonte Thompson of Florence. Joining Thompson on the pre-season All-GSC squad are senior receiver Lee Mayhall of Jackson, Tenn., junior offensive guard Stephen Evans of Boston, Mass., senior offensive tackle Jalen Beavers of Stringer, Miss., junior defensive lineman Tyler Smith of Rogersville, Ala., junior defensive back Phiilbert Martial of Mobile, Ala., and sophomore long snapper Wil Lovelace of Florence, Ala. Martial was also selected as the pre-season return specialist.
UNA has advanced to the playoffs in 10 of the last 12 seasons and has won more GSC football titles (11) than any other league school. Wallace said those numbers don't mean anything heading into 2015.
"It will be a challenging year for our seniors," Wallace said. "They came in here four years ago and kind of restarted the program with a new philosophy and hopefully they can go out with a great season. It will be tough because the Gulf South Conference is going to have some great teams and we have a difficult non-conference schedule. Every game will be its own challenge.
"We have holes to fill and things will have to fall into place," Wallace added. "We will have to stay healthy and make plays and play well to live up to our expectations."
Wallace, who already ranks as the winningest coach in GSC football history, has a chance to make some history of his own in 2015. He enters the season the season just three wins behind Hal Self as the winningest coach in UNA's storied football history. Self compiled a 109-81-8 record over his 21 seasons at UNA after re-starting the program in 1949. Wallace is 106-46-1 in his 13 seasons with the Lions.
UNA averaged 35.9 points and 440 yards per game last season offensively and the majority of the players generating those numbers are returning. Not only do the Lions return three-year starting quarterback Luke Wingo but also have experienced back-ups returning in Jacob Tucker and Jacob Thomas. Wingo, a senior from Tuscaloosa, threw for 2,291 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and rushed for another six TDs. He ranks among UNA's career leaders with 5,171 passing yards and 35 TD passes to go with 6,143 yards of total offense and 26 rushing touchdowns. Tucker, a junior from Linden, Tenn., has rushed for 676 yards and 12 TDs over the last two seasons and has thrown for another 653 yards and five scores. Thomas, a sophomore from Clay, Ala., rushed for 82 yards and one touchdown last season and threw for 249 yards and two TDs.
The backfield returns Thompson, who has 2,312 career rushing yards and 23 TDs, as well as senior Diamond Simmons of Hanceville, Ala., who has 878 career yards and 10 touchdowns.
The receiving corp is led by Mayhall and includes veterans Dre Hall and Eric Belew of Columbia, Tenn., Tevin Cook of Roanoke, Ala., Dajzon Dukes of Louisville, Ky., Hagan Scott of Birmingham, Ala., Jarret Smith of New Orleans, La., and Markeldon Washington of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
At tight end the Lions return starter Grant Lake of Arab, Ala., as well as back-ups Willie Bland of Cincinnati, Ohio and Nolan Coffey of Moulton, Ala. In all, UNA returns 13 players who caught at least one pass last season.
Evans and Beavers, along with returning starter Rod Winston of Tuscumbia, Ala., lead the way for an offensive line that returns 11 lettermen, including six with starting experience.
Defensively, UNA was among the GSC's best last season, allowing just 18.2 points per game.
The Lions have six defensive starters back, including the entire starting secondary of Martial, Levi Fell of Muscle Shoals, Ala., Floyd Jones of Town Creek, Ala., and Jalen Reedus of Birmingham, Ala. Smith leads the way on the defensive front and Nick Johnson of Olive Branch, Miss., is the lone returning starter at linebacker.
Junior Kevin Henke of St. Charles, Mo., is expected to handle the place-kicking duties, while transfer Jeb Millender of Ponotooc, Miss., a junior college All-American last season, is expected to be the starting punter.
Martial and Darvell Harris of Chicago, Ill., will lead the way on kick returns for the Lions. Martial has rolled up over 1,200 return yards over the last two seasons, while Harris averaged over 27 yards on kickoff returns a year ago.
Although facing a very difficult schedule in 2015, the good news for UNA is that the Lions lead the all-time series with all 10 of its scheduled opponents. On the down side, seven of UNA's opponents had winning seasons a year ago and three advanced to the NCAA Division II Playoffs.
UNA opens its 2015 season on the road at Birmingham's Legion Field against Miles College on Sunday, September 6 at 6 p.m. The Lions then open their home season on Sept. 12 at Braly Stadium against Mississippi College at 6 p.m. That game will include a reunion of the 1985 UNA squad that advanced to the NCAA Division II National Championship Game in McAllen, Texas, honoring the 30th Anniversary of that accomplishment. The UNA-MC game will also kickoff the GSC-TV Live schedule of broadcasts on ESPN3.
After a week off the Lions will host Florida Tech at Braly Stadium for the first time on Sept. 26 at 6 p.m. That will also be a GSC-TV Live broadcast.
Back-to-back road trips follow as UNA travels to Valdosta State on October 3 and Western Oregon on October 10. The Lions then return to Braly Stadium for a true Homecoming on October 17 for another non-conference game against North Carolina-Pembroke at 6 p.m.
On October 24 the Lions return to conference play at pre-season favorite West Georgia. UNA defeated the Wolves 31-28 last season on a dramatic game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute. UNA hosts Delta State at 1:30 on October 31, travels to Shorter on November 7 and wraps up the regular-season at home on November 14 against West Alabama.