Southeast Missouri State fans would probably just like to forget how last season ended. On the cusp of pulling off a stunner on the road in one of the harshest environments FCS football can offer, SEMO failed to hold onto a 24-3 second half lead. Montana stormed all the way back with an avalanche of big plays that left the Redhawks on the wrong end of an epic comeback in the opening round of the playoffs.
A loss like that is sometimes difficult to look past but when you realize it came on the tail end of a very successful run... one of the best in school history... it often puts things in perspective. In fact, it’s been quite the year for SEMO athletics as a whole. The Redhawks are fresh off their first ever trip to March Madness in men’s basketball and that postseason push last season in football was just the fourth time in program history the team played ball beyond the regular season. The best news for fans, though, is that the success is likely far from over.
The Redhawks have the pieces in place to run it back in 2023 thanks to a slew of returning faces that were instrumental in the run a year ago. Some new names have been added to the mix too, however, but it can’t be overstated just how important the guys coming back really will be to this year’s group. It’s a phenomena that isn’t lost on tenth-year head coach Tom Matukewicz.
“My biggest signees weren’t on the outside,” Matukewicz admitted plainly in an interview earlier this year. “My biggest signees were on my current roster. When we got back from Montana and I was able to have any kind of energy after feeling sorry for myself after that game, it was all on our current roster.”
Top to bottom SEMO shapes up to be a carbon copy of what they were last year on both sides of the ball.
Running back Geno Hess is perhaps the biggest name to appear on that roster again this season. The 2022 Ohio Valley Offensive Player of the Year made the announcement back in January that he’d be returning and that had to be music to the ears of every Redhawks fan out there. Last fall Hess was the one of the nation’s top running backs, racking up 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns. Only Monmouth’s Jaden Shirden ran for more yards and no one had more rushing scores.
1 of 4 TD runs for @SEMOfootball's @GenoHess who finished with an OVC record 317 rush yards!— Ohio Valley Conference (@OVCSports) November 19, 2022
• 3rd in OVC career rush TDs (51)
• 4th in OVC single-season rush TDs (19)
• 9th in OVC single-season rushing (1,569)
• 9th in OVC career rushing (3,989)#OVCit pic.twitter.com/LNdkckDB3s
Often times a one-man wrecking crew, Hess made opposing defenses look silly when he had the ball in his hands. He picked up 236 touches last season and currently has 4,112 career rushing yards. Hess has been unquestionably SEMO’s biggest offensive asset recently and his opting to use his sixth year of eligibility might be the make-or-break for the prolonged success of the program.
Hess isn’t the only major name returning to the offensive lineup, though. Quarterback Paxton DeLaurent is also back and that’s equally big news. DeLaurent was one of the most efficient passers in the Ohio Valley Conference last year, completing 210 throws for 2,684 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. Now in what shapes up to be his second full season with the team, DeLaurent is primed for a big step forward.
One of DeLaurent’s favorite targets, receiver Ryan Flournoy, also decided to rejoin the team this year. Flournoy caught 61 passes for nearly 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns, making an appearance in each of the team’s 12 games a year ago. Having guys in the passing game that already have established chemistry should go far in helping the team not miss a beat throughout this summer.
The offense, though, won’t be the only side of the ball that will be looking to replicate its prowess this year. While SEMO was putting up points at a high clip last season, the team’s defense was holding opponents to a league-best 22.6 points per contest. That unit will return many starters from last year including linebacker Bryce Norman who led the squad with 111 total tackles in 2022. Norman averaged nearly 10 stops per game in 2022, putting him among the top of all sophomore linebackers in the subdivision.
Joining Norman on that side of the ball will be a dynamic pair of DBs in Lawrence Johnson and Ty Leonard. The duo teamed up for 120 tackles last year with Johnson leading the team with eight defended passes. Among them they racked up two interceptions, a fumble recovery and 3.5 sacks as well.
With stability in nearly every position group on their side, consistency will be the name of the game for the team in 2023. If everyone can stay healthy then there’s a really good chance this year’s version of SEMO will be even better than last’s. Another conference crown and playoff berth seem to be well within reach.
So when the Redhawks kick off their 2023 slate against Kansas State on September 2, it may very will be the start of an all-time campaign down in Cape Girardeau. Of course the OVC is getting a new look this year as it is now partnered with the Big South meaning that SEMO will see some fresh opponents on top of their usual foes. As it stands currently, though, the Redhawks are the best of the bunch and more good times seem to be on the horizon.