RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – Following a 2018 campaign that featured an undefeated a regular season, a fourth Great American Conference title and the program’s first NCAA Division II playoff victory, Ouachita enters the upcoming football season as the league’s preseason favorite, the conference announced on Tuesday.
The Tigers picked up eight of the available first-place votes from the GAC’s other head coaches. Harding, who took second in the poll and received three first-place votes; Southern Arkansas claimed the remaining first-place tally and placed third.
Ouachita returns Brayden Brazeal, the 2018 GAC Freshman of the Year as its quarterback. He accounted for 16 touchdowns and he threw only two interceptions. Additionally the Tiger offense also brings back Brockton Brown, Shun’cee Thomas and Allie Freeman. Brown scored a GAC-leading 16 touchdowns as a freshman. Thomas averaged 7.8 yards per carry and ran for 820 yards. Freeman amassed almost 1,100 yards of all-purpose yards. Defensively, Ouachita returns Keandre Evans, an All-American defensive back. He tied for the GAC lead with four interceptions.
Harding, who in 2018 qualified for the DII playoffs for the third-straight season, features its top four rushing leaders for 2019. Cole Chancey ran for 961 yards, tops among returning GAC backs, and he scored 14 touchdowns. Tristan Tucker tallied 761 yards and six touchdowns on just 83 carries. Quarterback Preston Paden accounted for 17 touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, the Bisons must replace GAC Player of the Year T.J. Winslow as well as three additional First-Team All-GAC performers from the league’s top scoring defense.
SAU also faces multiple changes at key positions due to graduation. Quarterback Barrett Renner finished his career ranked second in league history in passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. Wide receiver Ka’Ronce Higgins became a Harlon Hill finalist after leading the conference in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. On defense, DaVondrick Lison finished as the league’s record holder in sacks. The Muleriders will return experience in the secondary in Brock Floyd and Lorenzo Watkins. Both tied for the GAC lead with four interceptions.
Henderson State finished fourth in the balloting. In going 5-6 last season, the Reddies endured their first losing season in the GAC. They return quarterback Richard Stammetti and running back Logan Moragne for their senior seasons. Stammetti passed for 2,459 yards and 18 touchdowns while Moragne, an Honorable Mention selection, ran for 684 yards and five scores.
Arkansas-Monticello edged out Southeastern Oklahoma State by one point for fifth place. Weevil tight end DeAndre Washington, returns for his junior season after his 700 receiving yards and seven scores earned him multiple All-Region honors. The Savage Storm features a new head coach in Tyler Fenwick. He posted a 37-29 record in six seasons at Missouri S&T including a 10-2 mark and a win in the Mineral Water Bowl last season. He inherits a defense led by Conner Swope. As a freshman, Swope ranked third in the conference with 116 tackles
Northwestern Oklahoma State placed seventh, followed by Arkansas Tech and Oklahoma Baptist. Senior linebackers Dakota Driskill and Maurice Wright anchor the Ranger defense. They finished 2018 as one of three tandems in Division II to both tally at least 110 tackles. Arkansas Tech also made a coaching change. Former Wonder Boy Kyle Shipp takes over at the helm. In his most recent role, offensive coordinator for UAM, the Weevils posted the second-best offense in both 2017 and 2018. After three straight 2-9 seasons, Oklahoma Baptist went 5-6 last year. Preston Haire led the GAC in passing yards, total offense and passing touchdowns. Additionally, his 27.64 completions per game led Division II.
Southwestern Oklahoma State, East Central and Southern Nazarene rounded out the poll. In his first season in Weatherford, Chet Pobolish saw the Bulldog offense improve by almost 5.0 points per game. At ECU, Al Johnson bettered the Tiger defense by almost 40 yards per game and almost 6.0 points per game in his first campaign. As a freshman, the Crimson Storm’s Gage Porter led all GAC quarterbacks in rushing yards with 668. He ran for seven touchdowns and added five passing scores.
The 2019 season opens on Thursday, September 5 with five contests. A matchup between the top two schools – Harding and Ouachita – takes place in Arkadelphia. Additionally, Southern Arkansas heads to Southern Nazarene; East Central hosts Northwestern Oklahoma State; Arkansas Tech visits Arkansas-Monticello and Southwestern Oklahoma State visits Southeastern Oklahoma State. The opening week concludes with one Saturday contest - Henderson State at Oklahoma Baptist.