MIAMI — The Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Golden Norsemen are the hunted rather than being the hunter heading into the 2018 football season.
The Golden Norse, coming off just the third nine-win season since 2005, were picked as the preseason favorite in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference by both the coaches and media who cover the SWJCFC.
“We know we are going to get everybody’s best shot,” NEO head coach Zach Allen said. “There’s not going to be any sneaking up on people. We earned a lot of respect; especially in some of the ways we won games last year, a lot of four-quarter battles.
“Obviously, it’s going to be tough to maintain that. We are going to have to make sure every week is sharp and crisp and our guys are confident because we know the kind of look we are going to get.”
The Golden Norse, who were 9-3, won the SWJCFC championship and finished eighth in the nation in the final NJCAA poll in 2017, open the season at home on Aug. 30 against Arkansas Baptist.
NEO had been as high as fourth, but dropped after suffering a 30-20 loss to Independence (Kansas) Community College in the first Midwest Bowl Classic at Red Robertson Field.
NEO also was 9-3 in 2012 and 2003.
“We’ve got every excuse in the world to look forward and past the season, take things for granted, but we’ve got to make sure that it never happens,” said Allen, who succeeds Clay Patterson.
Patterson resigned after two seasons to become tight ends coach at Minnesota.
Allen was part of NEO’s Southwest Junior College Football Conference championship teams in 2012 and 2017.
He was the recipient of the Merv Johnson Integrity in Coaching award in 2017.
The American Football College Coaches Association recognized Allen in 2016 as one of the best 30 coaches under the age of 30.
He lived in Dyer Hall and coached the defensive line when he first arrived on the NEO campus in 2009.
Since then, he’s been defensive line coach, special teams coach and recruiting coordinator (2010-13), defensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator and campus director of discipline (2014-17) and run game coordinator, offensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and athletic academic advisor last season.
“I will never take for granted this opportunity,” Allen said. “Being on both sides of the ball has really given me the experience to see the whole picture.”
He heads up a completely reconfigured NEO coaching staff that includes former Miami High School head coach Andrew Rice as offensive coordinator and Zach Crissup, who previously had been a Norse assistant from 2010-2014, as the defensive coordinator.
Miami’s Daniel Allen is one of the returning starters for the Norse.
He will be at left tackle on offense.
Gunner Hudson of Afton is among five players listed at running back on the tentative roster.
Also, Tommy Heatherly of Grove will handle kicking duties for NEO.
His deep snapper is another former Ridgerunner: Caleb Jones.
Three freshmen are targeted as starters: Austin Whitehead of Enid at left guard on offense and Chad Gooden of Douglasville, Georgia, at field corner, and Devin Ruffin of St. Louis Lutheran North at inside linebacker.
The rest are either redshirt sophomores, sophomores or redshirt freshmen.
There are 11 offensive starters from Oklahoma and nine on defense.
“We’ve got some good leadership from guys who know what it takes to be here and what it takes to be successful here,” Allen said. “It’s just going to be an ongoing process of making sure that all the things we know we have to do beforehand and during the week to be successful, all those things, are important to everybody within the program.”
“We’ve been through some battles in the spring and summer, so obviously when the calendar turns to August and September, it’s even more important to make sure we can keep rolling in the same direction,” Allen said.
The starting quarterback is expected to be Edmond Deer Creek redshirt sophomore Clayton Sims, who was playing behind Wyatt Steigerwald and Cordell Grundy, but missed spring drills with an injury.
“We feel we have three or four guys that can win us a ballgame,” Allen said.
Georgia State transfer Josh Shim enters the season as Sims’ backup.
“Are we deep and talented? Yeah, but until the lights really come on, I’m not sure we will know exactly what we have because they are older guys, but not exactly experienced,” Allen said.
Per usual on the junior college level, freshmen will be expected to fill key roles.
“We’ve got some really talented freshmen,” Allen said. “It’s so hard in this league to come in ready to play, especially with some of the more established programs that are so sophomore laden.”
Ray Embry of Prague has been pushing Choctaw redshirt sophomore Lonnel Burris for the starting nod at tight end.
“That will allow us to do some multiple tight end stuff like we were able to do last year with the guys we had at that position,” Allen said.
Devin Ruffin, a true freshman from St. Louis Lutheran North, has played really well at inside linebacker, Allen said.
He mentioned a couple of newcomers who also will fill key spots.
Tristan Crowder a Missouri State transfer by way of Bartlesville could be at defensive end.
Safety is one position with a lot of transfers, Allen said.
Gervarrius Owens, Southmoore, a redshirt freshman transfer from Kansas State, and Devodric Bynum, a redshirt freshman transfer from Houston are fighting for the top two spots in the secondary.
“The beauty of it is we also have guys like Ayo Ogogolo (a redshirt sophomore from Union) at safety that led us in interceptions last year and we know that when times become tough, he’s been in the fray,” Allen said. “We also have some really, really solid guys that have bled for NEO before and know what it takes to win.”
Allen said one of the more satisfying positions to watch day-in-and-day-out from a freshman class standpoint has been the offensive line.
“They are big, they are talented, but they are also tough,” he said. “You can never really measure when you watch high school film. You try to get guys that really mix it up, but in the trenches, the step is probably larger than any other position when you talk about high school to college.
“They are still working out kinks and getting used to the speed of the game, but when it comes to sticking their nose in and getting down and dirty, that freshman offensive line class has been fun to watch.”