By COURTLIN HAYGARTH | HSU Sports Network
RUSSELLVILLE, Arkansas — On the first day of August with a new season a mere 30 days away, the Henderson State football program was selected third in the 2023 GAC Preseason Poll, the league announced Tuesday.
This is the second time in three seasons the Reddies have been picked third in the conference’s preseason rankings. Last year, HSU was tabbed fourth before finishing the 2022 season in a tie for third with an 8-3 record. Henderson has exceeded their preseason positioning in each of the last three campaigns.
Ouachita Baptist, after capturing the 2022 GAC Championship, was picked to repeat as the conference’s favorite with 116 total votes and eight first-place votes. Harding accumulated the remaining four first-place nods for 113 points. Southern Arkansas (4) and Southeastern Oklahoma State (5) complete the Top-5 with 82 and 81 total votes, respectively.
Henderson looks to have one of the most experienced starting units in the league next season, bringing back 16 starters, including nine on defense and seven on the offensive side of the ball. Highlighting the returners is GAC Freshman of the Year quarterback Andrew Edwards, Second Team All-Region running back Korien Burrell and Second Team All-GAC defensive end Gary Lewis.
After starting the year as a back-up before being thrust into the leading role, redshirt freshman Edwards made the most of his nine starts in 2022, throwing for 2137 yards, 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions with a 63.8 completion percentage (146-229). Burrell became Henderson’s first single-season 1000-yard rusher since 2015, running for 1064 yards and 14 touchdowns. Lewis, as a redshirt freshman from Fordyce, Arkansas, burst onto the scene with four tackles for loss and two sacks in his first two collegiate games before finishing the year as Henderson’s leader in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (5).
Of HSU’s 12 All-Conference selections in 2022, eight of them return for another year donning the red and gray.
“I think we’ve got a really good nucleus, which is the first step to having a good football team,” head coach Scott Maxfield said. “We’ve got to figure out what our identity is and I think every year you have a different makeup of your football team from a leadership standpoint.”
A large part of that identity in 2022 was the passing game for the Reddies, featuring All-America wide receiver Xavier Malone and All-Region selection tight end Mike Benning. Henderson will need to fill the holes left by Malone and Benning, along with wide out Matt Childers as that trio was responsible for 76.6 percent of HSU’s receiving yards last season. The Reddies will also be without First Team All-GAC defensive back Deldric Shields and will need to replace their kicker, punter and long snapper on special teams.
The biggest areas needing attention heading into the new season will be the aforementioned receiving corps and the secondary, which ranked 12th in the GAC in 2022 with 245.4 yards allowed per game. Coach Maxfield brings in former Reddie standout wide receiver L’liott Curry to coach a receiving group which has produced an All-American in three consecutive years and former Angelo State head coach Will Wagner as the cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator.
“We have got to keep improving every day at practice throughout fall camp,” Maxfield said. “Anytime you start this time of year, you’re excited about the upcoming season but [there is] a lot of work to be done and a lot of questions to be answered before we can really figure out what we are as a football team.”
After kicking off the season Thursday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. at home in a revenge game against an East Central team that beat HSU in Ada, Oklahoma, last season, 31-10, the Reddies will spend two straight weeks on the road before facing their biggest test of its young season when Harding comes to Carpenter-Haygood Stadium at GeoSurfaces Field Saturday, Sept. 23. Henderson’s next big test will against former AIC-rival Southern Arkansas for Homecoming Saturday, Oct. 14 at 2 p.m before the 96th Battle of the Ravine stands as the final regular season challenge.
2023 GAC Preseason Poll