Lions face No. 5 ranked team in season opener

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Blake Hawkins tries to get away from a defender during North Alabama’s Spring Football game April 22.  No. 6 North Alabama will face No. 5 Texas A&M-Commerce in the season opener.

by Sports Editor Jacob Cole

The No. 6 ranked North Alabama Lions will battle No. 5 ranked Texas A&M-Commerce Lions in a Thursday night season opener Aug. 31.

After last year’s National Championship runner-up finish, the Lions are looking to avenge last season’s loss against a top five team. Texas A&M-Commerce finished 11-2 last season with a second round loss to Grand Valley State.

Both teams celebrated successful seasons, which resulted in both teams being pre-season top 10 teams to start the 2017 season. UNA was also picked to be the Gulf South Conference champion to begin the season.

First-year head coach Chris Willis said he is happy with being the favorite to win the GSC, but also said not to focus on pre-season rankings.

“The league is going to be extremely balanced this season,” Willis said. “It’s an honor that so many coaches would vote us to finish first with only six starters returning. We have a rich tradition and history of winning, and I think that had a lot to do with it. At the end of the day, it’s going to be about how you finish the season, not where you begin.”

The Lions lost Harlon Hill finalist Jacob Tucker but will return two-time first team All-GSC selection Dre Hall. Hall is UNA’s career leader in reception touchdowns and a pre-season GSC first team selection.

While the passing offense has taken time to develop fully during the early parts of camp, the defensive line has shown they can be a disruptive force for Texas A&M-Commerce and beyond.

The Lions had trouble getting pressure on the quarterback last year, recording only 23 sacks during the year. Willis said this has been a point of emphasis for the Lions staff as UNA signed transfers Maurice Burton, Jaylin Dailey and Jaylan Daniels to add a pass rush to the defense.

The Lions also return a multitude of talent at the defensive tackle position including All-GSC selections senior’s Eddquerion Harris and Freddie Reed.

South Alabama transfer Daniels said the defensive line is ready for 2017.

“I feel like we bring speed, power and everything we need to win,” Daniels said. “I don’t feel like anyone is going to be able to come around the edge against us and teams are going to have trouble getting passes off.”

Along with adding players, the Lions have also been training in the weight room, conducting player meetings and practicing for the season opener. With a tough game to begin the season, the Lions have not changed the approach to the game.

Freshman running back Deondre Hampton said everything is status quo with preparing for Texas A&M-Commerce.

“We have prepared with countless meetings and practices,” Hampton said. “Our coaches have done a great job of preparing us so far, so now it’s up to us to apply that to the field.”

The Lions will be looking to add to its program resume with a strong year in its last season as members of the GSC. The Lions will move to Division I after this season, and then be members of the Big South Conference in 2019.

The quest for a fifth straight GSC title will start Thursday, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. at Braly Stadium for the Lions against Texas A&M-Commerce.