DENHAM SPRINGS -- His players don't report until August 1, but Southeastern football coach Ron Roberts took time out to talk about the upcoming season and a variety of other topics during a visit with the Denham Springs Kiwanis Club at its July 13 meeting at Big Mike's.
The Lions return more than 50 lettermen, including seven starters on offense and 8 on defense from a team that finished 7-4 last season.
In an effort to build team unity and teach his players some life lessons, Roberts said he's had guest speakers talk with the team for about 15 minutes each day for what he termed 'character education'.
"Most of it's about really, honestly, it's about becoming a man -- being responsible and accountable, how you treat people, take care of your business -- all the things you're trying to teach your kids in any organization," Roberts said. "We just want to make better people (who have) a good chance to have success the next four years of their life."
For the players, that starts with completing class assignments and being on time for class, study hall and meetings, among other things.
"That's the toughest thing about football," Roberts said. "Unless you're blessed to have the best best talent on the field, it's about can you ... put men on the field."
"Put it all together, because when you become a man, you know, if I can put a bunch of men on the field versus boys, we've got a chance to be successful every Saturday."
Roberts mentioned two Livingston Parish players among the 108 on campus -- linebacker Kyle Nevels, a Louisiana-Monroe transfer from Walker and freshman punter Brayden Betz of Live Oak.
"We recruited him heavily out of high school," Roberts said of Nevels. "He went to Monroe. He was playing fullback, didn't want to play fullback. We recruited him as a linebacker. They didn't want to move him to linebacker, so he transferred down here to us, and he's playing linebacker. We're pretty excited about getting him on the field."
The Lions will also take the field with a new starting quarterback after seniors D'Shaie Landor and Justin Alo, who both started games last season, used up their eligibility.
Roberts said the starting nod will likely fall to redshirt junior Donovan Isom of Destrehan, who transferred to the Lions from Utah and started two games in 2015. He injured his elbow in camp last year and did not play.
"He came in in the spring, won the job," Roberts said of Isom. "He's still got to compete."
Roberts said Isom will get competition from South Carolina transfer Lorenzo Nunez and freshman Byron Walker from Sulphur.
"Right now, I think it would be Donovan," said of his starting quarterback. "He's a guy that's been in our program a couple of years, and he's getting to the point now where he's going to be a junior. He's the kind of guy you want to be starting quarterback because he's just a real mature kid, great kid. Everybody loves him, very active in FCA -- just all the character things you want in a young man if you want to put a picture of your program and put the guy up there in the front and say 'this is our guy', and he's the guy you want. So we're excited about that."
The Lions also placed four players on the preseason All-Southland Conference team -- junior running back Julius Maracalin on the first team offense, senior defensive back Max Lyons and senior linebacker Sione Teuhema (and LSU transfer) on the second-team defense and fifth-year senior Travis Romero on the second-team offensive line.
"It's always good to see those fifth-year guys, the guys that have really paid their dues and been around," Roberts said. "It's hard to find them nowadays because you start redshirting kids because none of them are patient enough to do that."
Roberts said finding players starts with recruiting, especially in Louisiana.
'I've got nine coaches, and all nine of them recruit the state of Louisiana," Roberts said.
"We basically go into every high school in the state of Louisiana. If you physically go into every high school, you physically go in, you call everybody, it's real tough really, to fall through the cracks. If they're falling through, there's usually a reason."
Roberts also said the Lions recruit pockets in Houston and the suburbs of Houston and Dallas as well as the southern part of Mississippi, Mobile and the Florida panhandle.
"It's so jam-packed," Roberts said of the Texas high school landscape. "It's easy in a day. You can hit seven high schools in a day."
But when it comes to recruiting, Roberts stressed, "We'll go anywhere, really."
Roberts said recruiting is also critical when it comes to handing out scholarships. Football Championship Subdivision teams (formerly Division I-AA) like Southeastern, are limited to 63 scholarships, while FBS teams (like LSU) have 85.
"We recruit walk-ons," Roberts said. "Back in the day, it used to be kids would call (and say) 'Hey, I want to come try out and walk-on'. That doesn't happen. Most of the time, we have seen a kid, we like him, we know he's going to get TOPS. We're trying to figure out what he's got, and we're trying to get his (financial aid) package and get him in."
"We've got to recruit those guys just as hard ..."
What helps Roberts and his staff, however, is that FCS teams can split up their scholarships, while FBS teams can't.
"I've got close to 80 on scholarship," he said. "If I recruit a kid in Louisiana and he gets TOPS. Ill say "Hey, you take your TOPS, we'll cover the rest, and you can come in.' So he's got everything paid for."
"But really on a equivalency of percentage, you're saying really I'm giving him 60 percent," Roberts said. "So I do that to two kids, I just bought another scholarship."
"I've only got two scholarships, but I signed three kids."
Roberts said the state's continued cuts to higher education have also been tough in terms of trying to formulate a budget not only for football, but for the school's athletic program.
"It's a real pain," he said.
"We're developing a budget in the spring, but we don't have a state budget yet that says what the heck we're going to get," he said. "This is the first year in probably 16 years that we have not been cut in higher education."
Roberts said fundraising, private funds and 'money games' are vital to his program. The Lions open the season Sept. 2 in a 'money game' at Louisiana-Lafayette. Southeastern is also slated to play at LSU in 2018, at Ole Miss and Louisiana-Monroe in 2019 and at Tulane in 2020.
Roberts said the going rate is $500,000 for payout games.
"They don't give me $500,000 for football," he said. "It's $500,000 ... for the athletic program.
"I mean, honestly, you have to play those games. It's a priority."
Roberts praised the game day atmosphere at Strawberry Stadium and the Southeastern fan base.
"I think we do have one of the greatest family atmospheres in college football," he said. "We're not going to pack in 100,000 people (like) at LSU and all that stuff, but you can actually show up right before the game, you can come inside and you can get a seat. And you can get out of there, too."
And Roberts said there's quality football, too.
"I think we play an exciting brand of football," he said. "When people come to our place, we want to make sure we play an exciting brand of football for them and make sure that it's a good, fun atmosphere, and they come in and want a good time and they come back. I think we do that. We have some great fans. Yeah, we're going to be 7,000 in the stands, but our 7,000 will be loud, and they're great."