Q&A with Sam Houston Beat Writer Josh Criswell

Image courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics Communications

Josh Criswell, the sports editor at The Huntsville Item, was kind enough to join us (Bennett Conlin and Jack Fitzpatrick) on this week’s podcast to discuss Sam Houston football.

Note: You can follow Josh on Twitter here. You can find the newspaper’s online sports content here.

The Bearkats host No. 3 JMU this weekend in the FCS semifinals, and Josh knows the team much better than we do. For the Sam Houston perspective, we leaned on his expertise.

We’ve edited and condensed aspects of the podcast interview to create this quick Q&A. For the full conversation, be sure to check out the podcast.

Bennett: Can you take us through your background covering the team?

Josh: I got here into Huntsville, I guess it was August 2019, so up until this season the Bearkat fans thought I brought all the bad luck, but turned things around this spring. It’s been a blast. It’s been a fun team to watch. I’ve kind of seen the transition. I came in, everyone talked about how great the Sam Houston football program was and then didn’t really see it at all during 2018, got to see flashes of it last year and now I mean they’re going up against what in my opinion is another one of the top-three teams in the country.

Jack: Sam Houston was last on JMU’s radar in 2016. It was billed as this huge game, and JMU kind of romped them … what has changed from 2016 Sam Houston to 2021 Sam Houston?

Josh: I think there’s a couple things. First you’ll look at the offensive side of the ball and they’re not that fast paced, play at a million miles an hour, try to score 70 points every game type of offense. As we’ve seen, they can as Nicholls had them drop 71 on them but they’re more of a scheme-based offense, I guess you’d say. They’re not gonna run it up and just try to no huddle hurry every single time. They do a lot more schematically.

One of the things that Coach Keeler talks a lot about is he brought in Ryan Carty to be the offensive coordinator coordinator, one of the bright coaching minds in all of FCS football. I think that’s the big part of it on that side of the ball and then as far as the defense goes, they’ve just kind of retooled it and started bringing in Power 5 caliber players to play those defensive lineman, linebacker spots.

You look across the board, you’ve got a guy in [defensive end] Jahari Kay that was probably slept on a little bit coming out of junior college, but I think if they had their shot this year, I’m sure UCLA, Stanford some of those schools in the Pac 12 would have been calling his name. [Defensive tackle] Joe Wallace right in the middle, he’s a guy that came here from Texas Tech. The Bearkats got lucky that one of his best friends was on the team and that kind of helped sway his decision to join Sam Houston.

You’ve got a guy like [defensive end] Jevon Leon, three-star recruit being recruited by several FBS programs, choose the Bearkats, that opportunity to get on the field right away. And then [defensive end] Trace Mascorro, the Southland newcomer of the year last season. He’s a guy who is a criminal justice major and the Bearkats have the best criminal justice program in the country, so they kind of got lucky on that one, too.

I mean, you’ve got a defensive line or probably six or so out of their front seven or eight guys of the defensive line, linebacker positions, they’re not guys that you typically see at the FCS level, right?

They’re the kind of bodies you see on teams like James Madison and North Dakota State and not really beyond there, so I think the biggest thing is just that front seven or eight and just how physical they are, but also how they have the athleticism that is kind of deceiving whenever you look and see how big some of those guys up front are.

Bennett: Are the special teams mistakes from the NDSU game (two TDs and a safety allowed) a major concern for Sam Houston or a one-week anomaly?

Josh: I think it’s a one-week anomaly, and head coach K.C. Keeler kind of talked about it immediately after the game and at a recent press conference. One of the things that they did that I think was a big [cause of] those issues is they started pulling some of their starting players.

Usually Sam Houston, they play their best players on special teams. Gary McGraw does a tremendous job coaching special teams. They’re typically one of the best special teams units in the country. They pulled some guys off the field that would typically be out there, so you have guys that are in situations they aren’t normally in and that kind of leads to some of these breakdowns, but you know, without a doubt, it is concerning. I think the big reason they took those guys off is so they have energy as they continue this postseason run.

I’m interested to see if they’re going to keep going with that strategy or if they’re going to get back to what worked so well for them on special teams in the regular season.

Jack: You brought up guys to watch but who are some X-factors, the ones who don’t necessarily jump out of the stat sheet, but that may have a real impact in the game on Saturday?

Josh: One I’m gonna throw out is not really a sleeper or anything, but wide receiver Jequez Ezzard has been a little bit quiet so far this postseason. He’s a guy who in the regular season he was averaging over 30 yards every time he touched the ball whether it was special teams or catching passes or running it. I think he’s a guy to watch. The games whenever he’s exploded are the games when Sam Houston has just run away from teams, like the Nicholls team. Yes, [Nicholls] wasn’t as good as their No. 7 ranking showed, but still a top 25-team when it’s all said and done, and [Sam Houston] just absolutely took them to the woodshed, and a big reason why was because Jequez was just running past everybody, so you got to keep an eye on him.

And then running back Noah Smith, too. He’s really a big X factor because whenever guys like wide receivers Ife Adeyi, Dee Bowens and Jequez Ezzard start stretching the field, the Bearkats love to get him into open space. Ryan Carty does a great job whether it’s sending him out on wheel routes or sneaking him into the middle of the field after everyone’s cleared out. I’ve lost count on how many times that Noah Smith just ends up with the ball in his hands and there’s no one within 20 yards of him, so I think he’s an X factor to watch, especially if Sam Houston’s passing game gets going look for Noah Smith to have over 100 all-purpose yards again.

Us: Score prediction?

Josh: I think it’s gonna be a close game. I think it’s probably a one-score game. If I had to guess, Sam Houston 24-21 with either a late field goal by Sam or a late defensive stop sealing the victory.

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